Michael, FINLAN. Options on Atonement in Christian Thought. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press/A Michael Glazier Book, 2007. pp. 145+ix, with bibliography and index of authors and ancient texts. $17.95, ISBN-13: 978-0-8146-5986-1.
Reviewed by Linda S. HARRINGTON, Briar Cliff University, Sioux City, IA 51104.

Options on Atonement in Christian Thought continues the work that Michael Finlan began in Problems with Atonement (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press/ A Michael Glazier Book, 2005). Indeed, the last paragraph in the earlier book sets the program for the present book. “[F]reedom means outgrowing the doctrines of an arbitrary and punishing God, accepting a more mature concept of the Divine Parent who is most interested in our growth, even in the transformation of God’s children ‘from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor 3:18)” (Problems, 124). It is developing that “more mature concept of the Divine Parent” that is the project of Options on Atonement.

Finlan begins with a description of various elements from the Jewish tradition that have been modified and combined in the various Christian atonement theories (a reprise of what he had presented in the earlier book) and then continues with an analysis of several contemporary responses to the problems raised by Christian atonement theories, both by those who support and those who reject atonement as a proper way to speak of Christ’s work of salvation. Finally, drawing on those analyses, Finlan offers his own alternative to the atonement metaphor, the idea of Religious conceptual growth.

Building on the insight of Gregory of Nazianzus that God’s light breaks upon humanity only gradually, and on biblical scholarship that describes the development of Israel’s concept of God that can be traced in the scriptural texts, Finlan writes

If the light of God (Trinity) issues progressive revelation designed to illuminate humanity, this fact needs to shape our understanding of the evolution of religion. It is certainly a tragic mistake to offer only a non-evolutionary choice, forcing us either to be stuck in the past or to repudiate the past. We would do better to remember that humans have to grow out of the past, but we also shape our present from the raw materials of our past, thus benefiting from the past. So we grow from as well as grow away from the past (118-19). Such an understanding of evolutionary revelation allows Christians to acknowledge the reality of violence in the Bible, neither turning a blind eye to it nor rejecting the Bible all together. The “truth of Judgment” that was expressed in demands for punishment and threats of retribution was a stage in the human reception of God’s revelation that we have evolved out of and away from.

The evolution that Finlan describes is one that displaces “God-fear” with “God-trust” and that “abandon[s] the idea of God as judge and sacrifice demander for the idea of God as parent and director of human growth” (127). Finlan goes on to say, “It seems that fear-based concepts of salvation were a necessary stepping-stone in the evolution of religion, but Jesus offered trust in place of fear (Luke 8:50; 12:32)” (131). Jesus taught about God as a loving father who does not need to be appeased, does not need to receive satisfaction, and does not need to have honor restored. Rather Jesus reveals the family paradigm for speaking about salvation when he teaches that we are all God’s children. Evolution in human understanding, uplifted and redirected by Christ’s revelation of the reality of God in family imagery, will, Finlan writes, do away with atonement theories that hint of ritual manipulation of God, ransom payments and criminal law. Such an evolutionary development neither diminishes the importance of the Incarnation nor weakens Christology, but leads Christians to hope for the future and to the realization that human life is not meaningless.

Like Problems with Atonement, this little book is valuable for its clear exposition of the various strands of ancient tradition that early Christians, especially Paul, used in their reflections on Christ’s work of salvation. Options on Atonement in Christian Thought also includes several concise summaries and clear analyses of the merits and shortcomings of the various contemporary approaches to the concept of atonement. The most valuable aspect of the book, however, is the connection that Finlan makes between the violence of atonement theories and the violence of abuse; the “more mature concept of the Divine parent” that he develops both acknowledges the reality of the ways that God-fear has been lived out in human families and offers a paradigm by which human families can evolve out of and away from such violence.


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