The Atonement in Lukan Theology

Written by John Kimbell Reviewed By Benjamin R. Wilson

In The Atonement in Lukan Theology, John Kimbell takes up a topic of perennial interest within Lukan scholarship: Did the author of the third gospel conceive of the death of Jesus as an act of atonement? For at least a century, many commentators on Luke and Acts have contended that Luke either denies, disregards, or otherwise downplays an interpretation of the cross as an atoning event. In response to this long-standing perspective, Kimbell presents an effective defense of the claim that the idea of atonement is an important facet of Luke’s understanding of the death of Jesus.

The first chapter of the book presents a brief introduction followed by a history of research on the atonement in Lukan theology. Perhaps because the literature on this topic is so voluminous, Kimbell is understandably content in this section simply to summarize the main conclusions of previous authors. Kimbell offers only occasional explanation of how interpreters have arrived at these alternative viewpoints, and he spends little time critiquing the positions of others. Nonetheless, the sweeping survey of scholarship does give the reader a sense for the extent to which interpreters have struggled to arrive at a consensus regarding the significance of the death of Jesus in Lukan theology.

Following this introductory chapter, Kimbell turns in the next chapter to the Lukan account of the last supper. An early textual variant leaves out the words of institution in Luke 22:19b–20, where Jesus interprets the bread and the wine with reference to his own body and blood. Therefore, Kimbell begins his discussion of the Lukan institution narrative by persuasively demonstrating that the words of institution are most likely original to Luke’s gospel.

Having established the text of the passage, Kimbell proceeds to discuss the interpretation of the passage. The author argues that the words of Jesus draw upon the imagery of the Passover and the establishment of the covenant at Sinai in order to show that the death of Jesus will be an atoning event that will usher in the blessings of the new covenant. This section of the chapter is surprisingly brief, and one wishes that Kimbell might have developed his exposition of this passage a bit more. Instead, Kimbell moves quickly from the passage itself to a much more sustained argument for the significance of the last supper scene within Lukan theology, as subsequent passages in Luke 24 and in the book of Acts allude back to Jesus’s final meal with his disciples. This is a point that has occasionally been debated, so the allocation of so much space to the issue is understandable. Still, Kimbell’s treatment of the last supper in its immediate context seems a bit thin.

In chapter three, Kimbell turns to the passion narrative, arguing that Luke’s account of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus contains a number of indications that the death of Jesus is an act of atonement that is being accomplished for the sake of others. Kimbell’s exposition of the exchange of Jesus for Barabbas is particularly interesting, as is the discussion of the interaction between Jesus and the penitent criminal. Indeed, chapter three as a whole is well argued, appropriately paced, and exegetically insightful.

Chapter four takes up Luke’s characterization of Jesus as the Isaianic servant. Here Kimbell wishes to demonstrate not only that Luke draws heavily upon the imagery and themes of Isaiah’s servant songs in his characterization of Jesus and his mission, but also that Luke has an interest in the atoning nature of the servant’s suffering within Luke’s characterization of Jesus as the Isaianic servant. While the first point is widely accepted, the second is more contentious. The matter is somewhat complex and depends upon a number of inter-related texts and issues. Consequently, this chapter of Kimbell’s work moves at a very fast pace, because the author is forced to handle an overwhelming number of passages within a relatively short amount of space. Also, Kimbell never interacts with Ulrike Mittmann-Richert’s Der Sühnetod des Gottesknechts: Jesaja 53 im Lukasevangelium, WUNT 220 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), a work with which he would certainly sympathize.

Chapter five is a catch-all chapter in Kimbell’s monograph, where the author turns to a random assortment of remaining themes and passages from Luke and Acts which might demonstrate the importance of atonement within Lukan theology. Here the author discusses the themes of human culpability and divine judgment, the imagery of fire and baptism in Luke 12:49–50, the terminology of Jesus being “delivered” into the hands of men at various points in Luke’s gospel, and the imagery of Jesus being “hanged on a tree” at Acts 5:30, 10:39, and 13:29. The discussion of divine judgment in particular is quite interesting, and this chapter allows the author to address a number of texts that have typically been a part of debates over the Lukan understanding of Jesus’s death. The book contains a final chapter that briefly summarizes the main conclusions of the previous chapters, and there is a useful bibliography and scripture index in the back of the book.

Kimbell’s work is a helpful contribution to the study of Luke’s gospel. The writing is efficient and well structured, with little wasted space, and the author convincingly demonstrates that Luke has no aversion to the interpretation of the cross as a sacrificial death for the benefit of others. A particular strength of Kimbell’s work lies in his sensitivity to scriptural resonances in Luke’s portrayal of the death of Jesus, as Kimbell is eager to show how Luke draws upon the imagery of the OT to interpret the suffering of Jesus.

For all of these strengths, there are two areas where I believe that the book could be improved. First, Kimbell pays only passing attention to the first century milieu of Luke and Acts. Even as the author discusses the inter-related concepts of sacrifice, atonement, covenant, and forgiveness, the work exhibits very little engagement with the sources of early Judaism. Instead, Kimbell relies quite heavily upon NT parallels and OT cross-references to interpret the above concepts in Luke and Acts. Certainly NT parallels should be counted as relevant witnesses to Luke’s literary and theological milieu, and the Scriptures of Israel were undeniably important in Luke’s theological framework. However, there is also a wealth of relevant data from early Jewish sources that bears significantly upon the issues under consideration in this book. Luke’s understanding of atonement must be contextualized within this broader first century setting.

A second limitation of Kimbell’s volume is that it leaves more or less unaddressed two of the most commonly cited counter-points to his optimistic appraisal of the concept of atonement in Lukan theology. First, Kimbell does not provide an explanation for Luke’s omission of the ransom saying from Mark 10:45 (cf. Matt 20:28), which is the one statement from Luke’s sources that seems to speak clearly to the vicarious nature of Jesus’s suffering. If the idea of atonement is central to Luke’s understanding of the cross, then why does Luke choose not to preserve Jesus’s statement about the Son of Man coming to give his life as a ransom for many? This has been the single most cited piece of evidence for the view that Luke lacks an atonement theology, yet Kimbell leaves this question unaddressed, except for a single footnote where he simply states that the rest of his work has proven that the omission of the ransom saying could not be due to a Lukan aversion to atonement theology (pp. 119–120n98). I suspect more skeptical readers will be dissatisfied with this explanation. Similarly, Kimbell does not directly address the objection that the forgiveness of sins is never explicitly connected to Jesus’s death in the evangelistic speeches of Acts. Again, this has been a central tenet of the overall viewpoint that Kimbell wishes to challenge. Various plausible responses to this objection have been proposed, and Kimbell’s work would be strengthened by facing the main counter-points to his overall perspective more directly.

I have spent more space explaining my criticisms of Kimbell’s work than praising the book’s positive features, yet the proportions of this review must not be taken as a reflection of the book’s merit. Kimbell’s work is an enjoyable read and a valuable resource on an important topic, and interpreters of Luke’s gospel will surely benefit from its contributions.

Benjamin R. Wilson

Benjamin R. Wilson
Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois, USA

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