Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity

Written by I. Howard Marshall Reviewed By K. Erik Thoennes

That Christ bore the wrath of God in his suffering and death on the cross in the place of sinners is considered by many to be at the very heart of the gospel. While the central importance of penal substitution has been challenged in the past (e.g., Abelard, Socinus, Schleiermacher, Dodd, Aulen), a recent wave of negative critiques from within evangelicalism (e.g., Wright, Green and Baker, Chalke and Mann, McKnight) beckons scholars to reassess the issue. Among those offering their voice to this effort are I. Howard Marshall and Stephen Holmes.

Marshall offers a solid, exegetically based critique and defense of penal substitution. This short book (137 pp.) offers a concise yet comprehensive treatment of the key issues in the debate. Marshall provides the quality of work in the biblical text you would expect from this top NT scholar. The basic outline of the book is as follows:

Chapter 1: “The Penalty of Sin.” Marshall shows why fallen humanity needs a substitute-sacrifice. The gravity of sin and the consequential legitimacy of divine wrath and judgment are convincingly presented. The foundational biblical assumptions of his entire study are given as seven “basic affirmations:” (1) Salvation is by grace alone. (2) The Father’s and Son’s purposes and actions in the atonement are perfectly unified. (3) The decisive element in our salvation is the death and resurrection of Jesus. (4) Jesus’ death is the death of the Son of God and the sinless human being, the second Adam. (5) The incarnation was an essential condition of that atonement. (6) Salvation in Christ through Holy Spirit enabled faith. (7) The atonement delivers us from the guilt and power of sin and restores us to a right relationship with God. These affirmations are the basis for refuting Alan Mann and Steve Chalk’s views, which oppose penal substitution as leading to ideas of “cosmic child abuse.” With help from Henri Blocher and Trevor Hart, Marshall establishes the indispensable weight of complementary atonement metaphors to refute the thought that metaphors can lose their relevance. Marshall acknowledges that terms like penalty, anger, condemnation, and judgment are open to misunderstanding, yet affirms that they express the “heart of the matter” of Christ’s work.

Chapter 2: “The Substitutionary Death of Jesus.” Marshall leans on P. T. Forsyth and establishes the biblical basis for substitutionary atonement. He explains the holiness and wrath of God and how it relates to atonement concepts like sacrifice, curse, redemption, ransom, reconciliation, and forgiveness. This chapter responds mostly to Joel Green and Mark Baker and points out their sloppy handling of the NT teaching that leads them to reject penal substitution (he does this mostly in a substantial footnote [p. 33], which by itself is worth the price of the book). While Marshall thinks some evangelicals (e.g., Grudem) overstate the wrathful disposition of the Father toward the crucified Son, nonetheless, he finds the stunning clarity of the biblical teaching undeniably obvious. In light of Gal 3:13, he says, “Jesus bears the curse of God on our behalf. If that is not penal substitution I do not know what is.” He also assures Arminians that penal substitution does not depend on particular election or limited atonement.

Chapter 3: “Raised for our Justification.” Marshall discusses the neglected but necessary place of the resurrection in atonement theology. Here he brings Richard Gaffin and M. D. Hooker to the table for support as he grounds his view on careful exegesis of Rom 4:25; Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” This chapter may be the most important contribution of the book.

Chapter 4: “Reconciliation: Its Centrality and Relevance.” Peter Stuhlmacher and Ralph P. Martin are brought in to support Marshall’s suggestion that the atonement is best conceived as reconciliation. Related words like peace and forgiveness are particularly relevant today due to the unique relational needs of humanity.

Because Marshall aptly grounds his presentation in clear exegesis, there is not much to find wrong with this book. The book does a good job of showing how vital a clear understanding of the Trinity is if penal substitution is going to be rightly understood. However, in Marshall’s effort to emphasize the unity of the persons of the Trinity, I think he starts to under-appreciate the necessary distinctions between them (pp. 55–76). While it is certainly true that Father and Son are completely one in nature and purpose, their distinctions enabled the atonement to be accomplished the way it was. The Son does not convince the Father to forgive, but the Son does bear the wrath of the Father in a way the Father does not. The most significant problem I found in the book was a passing affirmation of annihilationism (p. 30n48). In expressing his inclination toward this interpretation of 2 Thess 1:9, he says that he is moving away from his refutation of an annihilationist reading in his 1983 commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians. While this is in no way a major point of the book, it is a needless one to make and seems to open him to similar criticism with which he charges others in this book, namely, in denying eternal conscious punishment he offers “a simple denial of what Scripture says rather than … a convincing re-interpretation of what Scripture does say” (p. 54).

In The Wondrous Cross, Stephen Holmes has written a popular-level evaluation of penal substitution that shows both his theological acumen and pastoral concern. His academic and pastoral insights and experience enable him to write about deep theological issues with clarity, humor, and a worshipful tone. The hymn stanzas that begin each chapter serve not only to portray the many ways the atonement has been expressed by the church, but they are also excellent reminders that worship is the ultimate goal of all theology. The objective of the book is to examine penal substitution in light of the many “stories of the atonement” that the Bible and tradition have given so that they all are heard and carry the relative weight they should.

Chapter 1. Holmes begins by saying that “Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the cross than to understand it.” Although this seems like a bit of a false dichotomy Holmes’ play on words attempts to put the intellectual quest in perspective so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. This chapter establishes the tone, method, and outline of the book.

Chapter 2. OT pictures of the cross are examined for their typological import. These include sacrifice, justice, servant-hood, wholeness, healing, and representation.

Chapter 3. NT atonement metaphors of sacrifice, victory, ransom, healing and salvation, reconciliation, revelation, new covenant, and justification are discussed. Holmes emphasizes the need for all these “complementary models or stories of salvation that hint at and point towards the indescribable truth at the heart of the matter” (p. 41). He believes this is the pattern we find in the NT as well.

Chapter 4. Holmes examines the theories of the atonement prevalent in the first 1,500 years of Christian history. While there was not a lot of sustained reflection on how the cross accomplished redemption, the themes of ransom and victory were the most common ways the effects of the cross were thought about. Anselm’s satisfaction theory and Abelard’s opposition to it are explained as well.

Chapter 5. Views of the atonement in and after the Reformation are explored in this chapter. Holmes sees Calvin as the first to provide a complete statement of penal substitution. Holmes discusses the atonement views of the counter-reformation, Reformed Orthodoxy, Evangelical Revivalism, Liberalism (Schleiermacher), Princeton theology (Hodge), Aulen, as well as Liberation and Feminist theology.

Chapter 6. Here Holmes provides his most sustained defense of his “many metaphors” idea. Building on the work of his mentor Colin Gunton in The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition, he exhorts us to incorporate all of the various ways the cross is viewed in our understanding of the atonement.

Chapter 7–8. These chapters respond to criticisms of penal substitution.

Chapter 9. Holmes offers the implications of penal substitution for ethics, evangelism, discipleship, and holiness.

Appendix. Holmes finally evaluates the negative attacks on penal substitution by Green and Baker, Chalke and Mann.

The greatest strength of Holmes’ book is his ability to convey complex theological issues in a way that an untrained thoughtful reader can easily understand. This book serves as a model of communicating theology with clear language, uncluttered with needless theological jargon. I do believe this effort was pushed a bit too far in that it led the publishers to eliminate all citations, leaving the reader often wondering where Holmes got his information. This is especially true when he is discussing church history.

Holmes seeks to rise above the fray of the heated debates currently raging around penal substitution. He is irenic to a fault, however. As the book closes he finally dives into the details of the current debate and responds to those working to discard penal substitution. He actually says in the last paragraph of the book that he is in both camps of the debate. It is always easier to appear irenic when you are not convinced that the issues being discussed are of utmost importance. If penal substitution is a potentially helpful metaphor depending on the cultural relevance it holds, there is nothing worth really getting worked up about when it is denied or dismissed. But for those who believe it is the foundation of all the other effects of the cross, the stakes in this discussion are great, and so the intensity of concern, conviction, and passion will be understandably high.

Another area of concern is that Holmes seems to treat atonement metaphors as if they only point to theological content rather than actually having theological content. Metaphors like penal substitution only hint at something mysterious happing at the cross rather than actually telling us something that is happening. At the cross, the Father pours out divine wrath on the Son as Christ suffers and dies in our place. That is more than a metaphor; it is the objective reality that saves sinners.

The most troubling aspect of Holmes’s presentation is that he seems to allow cultural relevance to determine the importance of various views of the atonement. He believes that penal substitution has lost much of its compelling power because of so little sense of sin and guilt in contemporary society. And while it is not an entirely irrelevant concept yet, he says that he imagines a time when penal substitution “must be relegated to the history books, as a story that makes little sense to new cultures” (p. 121). This is taking contextualization to the point where the gospel is transformed by culture rather than being translated into the culture. It also misses the clear teaching of the NT when it tells us that the gospel has always been foolishness from the world’s eyes. The meaning of the cross should not be changed by human perspectives; human perspectives need to be changed by it.

While Christ’s bearing divine wrath in the place of rebellious humanity certainly does not exhaust what the NT says about the atonement, apart from it, Christ’s work loses its power and effect, and all other and benefits of the atonement vanish. One hopes that the current controversy over penal substitution will ultimately serve to strengthen rather than weaken the church’s grasp of the cross.

K. Erik Thoennes

Biola University; Grace Evangelical Free Church

La Mirada, California, USA

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