I’m very thankful to have read Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, because there’s an understanding of how Jesus’ death saved us that many Christians believe and that is absolutely poisonous.
I’m referring to the popular understanding of what is called penal substitutionary atonement, and here’s how you’ve heard it articulated: God poured His wrath out on Jesus on the cross so that He could forgive us instead of pouring His wrath out on us. We are sinners who deserved hell; because of Jesus serving as our substitute, we can be forgiven. This is what many people in church will call the “good news”.
I’ve had problems with this atonement theory for a while. Many people will insist that Jesus had to bear the wrath of God because justice had to be satisfied, but if this theory is true, then justice was not met at the cross at all. Justice was in fact violated because God apparently killed an innocent man for someone else’s crime—and perverting justice toward the innocent is something that is explicitly condemned in Scripture. I don’t see how you can argue that God dealt with our sins at the cross when He had to effectively sin in order to save us.
Thankfully, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross looks at the relevant biblical passages and influential theologians throughout history to show that this popular understanding of penal substitution is not something to which the church has held. The authors, Joel Baker and Mark Green, contend that the reason the early church never articulated a single atonement theory is that it saw the cross of Christ through several lenses and used several metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplished through his death. The following is a brief review of their work, which I received as part of the book review program by IVP Academic.
To be clear: the authors believe that Jesus’ death accomplished something on our behalf. Jesus died “for us”—of this, there is no doubt in their minds. But there are several ways of explaining how that happened, write the authors. To communicate what the death of Jesus accomplished, the biblical writers used images and metaphors drawn from the culture of their time.
After examining both the biblical passages and various theologians that include Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard, the authors look at how the cross is understood in modern cultures and various places, including Japan and Africa. I was very interested to learn how each culture sees the cross through different lenses and excited to see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been made incarnate through words and images that those cultures can understand.
What was helpful in the discussion of the history of Christian thought regarding the atonement was the clarification on what Anselm meant in his theory of satisfaction. This theory is different from the modern view in that modern Christians today think it was God’s wrath that must be satisfied, while Anselm believed it was God’s honor that must be satisfied.
This is a book that will both educate you regarding the theories of atonement presented by the church as well as challenge what you think the predominant theory is or should be. The book will also challenge how you communicate the gospel and consider if there are better ways to share it with cultures that have different values and ways of thinking than ours. I’m thankful that Baker and Green made the case—well, in my opinion—that there is not a single metaphor for the cross, behind which all other theories must stand.
So go pick it up. You’ll be glad you did.