There are a number of reasons to applaud The Nature of the Atonement, not least its' provocative and illuminating presentation. The book consists of a short introduction by the editors, where they offer the briefest of histories on atonement theology. The introduction is followed by four chapters, each of which presents a different evangelical view on the significance of the atonement of Christ. Each participant presents his views from the witness of Sacred Scripture, though at times, minimally, certain ideas and writings from the Christian tradition are invoked or recalled. Following each chapter and major presentation, three other participants respond. In this regard, the book is provocative, as it invites critical response. It is likewise illuminating, for it is through the hermeneutical lenses of others that one is enabled to see more clearly what is at stake in the discussion. Imagine a round-table discussion of the significance of the cross and consequently the relationship of the cross to the Church and to the world. Indeed, the discussion is meant to invite critical analysis, a real engagement with the Word: How does Christ save God’s people? What is the atoning work of Christ? What exactly is wrong with humanity and the created order and to what extent can we expect a remedy to that effect?
The method of the book is not new of course, as there are many fine examples of the same in our tradition and in our midst today. Regardless, this reader finds the method to be a successful one and applauds any work that employs the method. The seemingly or at least potentially cacophonous sound of many distinct voices can be an invitation to appreciate the fullness of the atoning work of Christ. Can any one model really capture the significance of the atonement and its appropriation in the world? This is one of the most fundamental questions the book seeks to address, and in that regard the book concerns more than atonement theology. It is a book about the fundamentals of Christian faith, of hermeneutics, of the relationship between truth and history and between faith and reason; indeed, certain fundamental assumptions are at stake as the writers present their understanding of the atoning work of Christ. Not least among these fundamental questions is to what extent we can, should, or even want to subsume all voices under one overarching motif? Does unity require this?
To our first author, Gregory Boyd, the answer is 'yes.' To his mind, there is one view of the atonement that is most capable of respecting the diversity of the Scriptural witnesses and yet able to unify them, that is, the classic, Christus Victor view. While I can appreciate Boyd’s desire to unify the diverse voices, to my mind his method subdues and usurps the voices of the many that do not fall neatly into the Christus Victor view. This in turn forces him to alter the traditional, apocalyptic acclaim of the Christus Victor view. As one of his respondents, Bruce Reichenberg, rightly notes, “when Boyd discusses Christ’s victory, love is the means to victory. The centrality of love is scripturally correct but provocative and questionable within a Christus Victor context. Indeed the final successful battle is not one of love but of all-out horrific war (Rev. 19-20).”
In contrast to Boyd’s attempt to provide an overarching solution to the reality of diversity in the Scriptures vis-à-vis atonement theology, Joel Green supports a “kaleidoscopic” view that seeks to maintain the tension between the different atonement theologies. To Green, each of the views captures a significant aspect of the atoning work of Christ, is contextually sensitive and ought not to be subsumed or abstracted into some reality other than the very fundamental truth that God’s eternal will is realized fully in the cross of Christ. The particulars of the saving work simply reflect that God’s will is being realized in different contexts. The historical, contingent realities must be preserved for the sake of the Gospel message that God in Christ has really entered into world history on all fronts. In this regard, it must be noted that, to Green, the cross itself is the culmination of a life lived in fidelity to God. Despite what Boyd suggests – and here I find him contradictory – Green does not neglect the significance of Christ’s life, mission and teachings in his kaleidoscopic view. Consequently, praxis is not tangential to theory in the kaleidoscopic view. On the contrary, praxis demands sensitivity to contextualization, which is exactly one of the fundamental principles of the kaleidoscopic view!
Praxis and Christian discipleship are also reflected in Thomas Schreiner's presentation on the more traditional and objective oriented penal substitution view, though not in any wholly integrated way. Rather, Schreiner presents the Christian life and discipleship as a faithful response to what was already accomplished objectively on the cross by God in Christ, not as Christ's work of atonement being realized in and through believers even now. Granted, the penal substitution view of the atonement tends not to look to the subjective experience of the same, as its focus is God's holiness, justice and mercy not ours. Still, Paul's powerful words, "who can separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rm. 8:35), suggest that any atonement theology should, in an integrated, organic way, do what it claims Christ himself has actually done for us. But perhaps that would deny the traditional voice of the penal substitution view. If so, it may be best to let it stand as is and augment it with other voices of a more subjective nature. Each voice is then heard in its own right.
The last view to be presented in the book is the healing view, an appropriate complement to the more objective views of penal substitution and Christus Victor. The view is presented by Bruce Reichenbach who orders his atonement theology around the motif of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Particularly valuable—but likewise contentious—is the attention Reichenbach pays to the physical realities of salvation; that is, that one can hope to be healed of the effects of sin, disease, and so on in this life. Moreover, that the human being is essentially one and so biblical texts about salvation that employ language of physicality ought not to be viewed as metaphorical or spiritualized in such a way that denies this truth. I say contentious because there is still great suffering in the world, in many dimensions of the created order, as Green notes. The suffering of the whole of the created order continues on, despite the atoning work of Christ two thousand years ago and the redemptive efforts of countless persons whom have followed after him since—and suffered for it—hoping to bring peace to the world. Meanwhile, many of these persons fall victim to the very task at hand, as Reichenbach rightly acknowledges when he writes: "self-sacrifice and servanthood are goods. But as with many other good things, self-sacrifice and servanthood can be misused." Despite this truism, Reichenbach would suggest that the way of the great Physician is the way of love and the way of love often demands one's very life for the sake of other.
Much more could be said regarding The Nature of the Atonement, as it is provocative. But perhaps enough has been said to pique your interest. While I do not agree wholeheartedly with any one author, I find each of them offers valuable insights worthy of additional thought. You may disagree with their methods, hermeneutics, or presuppositions. You may prefer a work that engages more of the Christian tradition, perhaps some of the classic texts of similar approach. You may even prefer to explore the numerous articles that are available to cover the whole of the Christian tradition, vis-à-vis atonement theology. But, if you are looking for a more focused discussion on the atonement—that is, in terms of today's evangelical milieu, The Nature of the Atonement can certainly serve as a fine forum for exploring essential matters of the Christian faith.