Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Notes: "Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed", by Adam Johnson

Yesterday I shared some quotations from Adam J. Johnson's "Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed", and today I wanted to share a proper review of the book.

(First, for full disclosure: I went to college with Adam, and he and his wife have been friends of ours for many years now. Most of what that means for this review is that now you know how I heard about this book!)

The first paragraph of "Atonement" gives a good feel for how Johnson approaches the doctrine of the atonement:

As I told my veteran pastor of my plans to do graduate studies in the doctrine of the atonement, a wry smile creased his face as he asked: 'So . . . which theory of the atonement do you believe in?' I responded: 'All of them!' The purpose of this book is to offer a more expansive answer to this question ...

In fact, this book takes on all the classical theories of the atonement and, rather than dismissing any of them, tries to mine the riches from all of them. In some ways, it reminded me of the way my kids eat ice cream on a hot day, licking up every last bit of goodness from the bowl: Johnson doesn't want any good thing that is ours in Christ to escape our grateful notice.

I appreciated the first several chapters of the book, which examine the lay of the land and remind me of all the theological classics I last read (too long ago!) in college, but the book really came alive for me in the middle chapters, which turn to examining the atonement in the light of:

-the Trinity
-the divine attributes,
-the life of Christ

These sections were golden. Books of hard theology (i.e., not lay-level theology) are, well, hard. But these middle chapters reminded me of why it's worth it for me, as a layperson, to read hard theology: because I am reminded of how good God is, and how much he has done for us, and how truly amazing his acts of mercy and grace really are.

By examining the doctrine of the atonement in light of the Trinity, I was reminded that only a triune God could have accomplished our deliverance. It was because of who God is - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - that the Redeemer could be sent by the Father, could live a life of obedience, and could come to be present within us through his Spirit. And only by God becoming man could humanity actually be reunited with God.

Johnson reminds us that we are not just saved from our sins, but we are saved "into the life and pattern of Christ" and that Jesus' life is "not merely an example to inspire us, but ... the reality into which we are swept ... Jesus had to live this life for it is our incorporation or assumption into this life by the Spirit which is our at-one-ment with God, which constitutes our salvation."

I also appreciated his understanding of God's wrath, in light of the cross. Johnson writes:

Much of our work in this book has emphasized the life-giving creative nature of Christ's atonement. But this cannot be at the expense of the destruction, judgement, wrath and death included within this same event - for while in the work of Christ God says 'YES' to humankind in Christ, he simultaneously says 'NO' to sin, evil and death. The Old Testament consistently holds the compassion of God for his people and his creatures in tension with his righteous anger against them...

And then, after observing that God passed over the sins of humankind not to overlook them, but to deal with them "in the right time and in the right way", Johnson makes this truly terrifying observation:

To be sure, he did not pass over these sins completely. Adam and Eve were sent from the garden, Israel was exiled, and many sins were punished - but God's response was always mingled with grace and patience, always giving room and making space for his sinful creatures, always seeking to bring them back to himself. The judgement, the punishment and the wrath were always muted, always a witness and testimony to that which would one day be fully released without restraint.

Which makes me pray with the words of the Te Deum, "We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge ... we therefore pray thee, HELP THY SERVANTS ..."

And, I suppose a good place to end this review would be to say, in this book I am reminded: God has answered that plea. Definitively.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

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