Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory

A Guide to Research

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Junius Johnson
Illuminations: Guides to Research in Religion
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
    , December
     2015.
     222 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780810884342.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Comparing doctrines of Christ’s atonement is not merely an academic exercise for bored armchair theologians, nor is it a “case closed” field of study. It is a testament to the complexity and far-reaching consequences of atonement theology that this issue is still debated today by biblical exegetes, Christian philosophers, and even the authorities of modern-day Catholic and Orthodox churches. Thus, I expect that anybody with an interest in Christian theology will be enthusiastic about Junius Johnson’s promising new title, especially those who consider the patristic and medieval periods as the essential starting place for understanding the development of the Christian doctrine of atonement. Yet while Johnson’s Guide to Research has all the earmarks of a vital new tool or companion, and indeed will be of great use to non-academic audiences, it ultimately fails to live up to its title, given its uselessness to the scholarly researcher.

Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory cannot be faulted for its organization or scope. It begins with an introduction to the theological areas impacted by the doctrine of the atonement, utilizing a constructive-theology style that identifies all facets of the doctrine of atonement without limiting the scope to “sacrifice” or “crucifixion,” but acknowledging that understanding the atonement requires a robust and complete christology. The next two chapters illuminate the historical context of doctrinal development in general, and provide a few summaries of relevant issues such as the Augustinian theology of image and likeness. After that, the book consists of brief summary chapters that condense monumental works of the greatest theologians from the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity into a few pages. Johnson is emphatic that his list of thinkers is not exhaustive, nor his summaries comprehensive, and that he has only included thinkers who “most famously” used “different types of theories” which are “readily accessible in English translation” (71-72). There are a total of nine of these. Johnson ends with a long annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources that comprises nearly a fourth of the book’s length.

Johnson’s project is ambitious, and his methodology commendable. However, if his book is meant to aid in any kind of research, it reads as a catalogue of bad decisions by the author. For example, is it necessary to give a lengthy discourse about how different the English and Latin languages are to a researcher of patristic and medieval Christian thought (33-34)? Why is every primary source cited from an English translation, some of which are very outdated? Why is there so little current secondary scholarship cited or included in the annotated bibliography, which is much more annotation than bibliography? Choices like these are a recipe for surface-level scholarship.

What these flaws suggest is not that Johnson has written a bad book; he has written a badly-titled book. There are many ways in which this text is effective and very useful. It provides concise and penetrating examinations of nine patristic and medieval authors from a constructive theology standpoint. It lays out the pressure points of atonement theory, showing how various concerns affect each other and shape other elements of a theological system. It can be read by anyone, from undergraduates to professors. My initial disappointment in Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory: A Guide to Research was based on my expectations of something more like the Cambridge Companion series; a research guide, not a popular survey. Disabused of my expectations however, I can commend this so-called Guide to Research to a popular audience.

Comparing doctrines of Christ’s atonement is not merely an academic exercise for bored armchair theologians, nor is it a “case closed” field of study. It is a testament to the complexity and far-reaching consequences of atonement theology that this issue is still debated today by biblical exegetes, Christian philosophers, and even the authorities of modern-day Catholic and Orthodox churches. Thus, I expect that anybody with an interest in Christian theology will be enthusiastic about Junius Johnson’s promising new title, especially those who consider the patristic and medieval periods as the essential starting place for understanding the development of the Christian doctrine of atonement. Yet while Johnson’s Guide to Research has all the earmarks of a vital new tool or companion, and indeed will be of great use to non-academic audiences, it ultimately fails to live up to its title, given its uselessness to the scholarly researcher.

Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory cannot be faulted for its organization or scope. It begins with an introduction to the theological areas impacted by the doctrine of the atonement, utilizing a constructive-theology style that identifies all facets of the doctrine of atonement without limiting the scope to “sacrifice” or “crucifixion,” but acknowledging that understanding the atonement requires a robust and complete christology. The next two chapters illuminate the historical context of doctrinal development in general, and provide a few summaries of relevant issues such as the Augustinian theology of image and likeness. After that, the book consists of brief summary chapters that condense monumental works of the greatest theologians from the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity into a few pages. Johnson is emphatic that his list of thinkers is not exhaustive, nor his summaries comprehensive, and that he has only included thinkers who “most famously” used “different types of theories” which are “readily accessible in English translation” (71-72). There are a total of nine of these. Johnson ends with a long annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources that comprises nearly a fourth of the book’s length.

Johnson’s project is ambitious, and his methodology commendable. However, if his book is meant to aid in any kind of research, it reads as a catalogue of bad decisions by the author. For example, is it necessary to give a lengthy discourse about how different the English and Latin languages are to a researcher of patristic and medieval Christian thought (33-34)? Why is every primary source cited from an English translation, some of which are very outdated? Why is there so little current secondary scholarship cited or included in the annotated bibliography, which is much more annotation than bibliography? Choices like these are a recipe for surface-level scholarship.

What these flaws suggest is not that Johnson has written a bad book; he has written a badly-titled book. There are many ways in which this text is effective and very useful. It provides concise and penetrating examinations of nine patristic and medieval authors from a constructive theology standpoint. It lays out the pressure points of atonement theory, showing how various concerns affect each other and shape other elements of a theological system. It can be read by anyone, from undergraduates to professors. My initial disappointment in Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory: A Guide to Research was based on my expectations of something more like the Cambridge Companion series; a research guide, not a popular survey. Disabused of my expectations however, I can commend this so-called Guide to Research to a popular audience.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Jacob Cuff is a Ph.D. student in Church History at The Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Junius Johnson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Baylor University, a research fellow at the Rivendell Institute at Yale, and a research associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is the author of Christ and Analogy.

Keywords: 

Comments

Junius Johnson

I thank Mr. Cuff for taking the time to read my book and to post his comments on it. Most of his criticism, which he admits is relative to frustrated expectations, stems from a particularly narrow understanding of the word "research" in the subtitle. He seems to think that it must reference scholarly work done by specialists in the field: as such, the fact that the book will not be of much use to, say, any of the authors cited in the book is taken to be inconsistent with the book's title. I can say, however, that this was not what either the editor nor I had in mind by the word "research."

Rather, we meant research in the sense that someone who is coming to a vast field for the first time has a great deal of study to do to get oriented and to discover what is going to be most salient for them in the material to which they come. It is rightly called research when someone sets out on such a path, and this is the sense in which the word is meant in the subtitle.

I wrote this book for those perplexed by the massive primary and secondary literature on this topic in these periods. I had primarily in mind the non-specialist, whether scholars of later periods, students, or motivated lay people (and this explains why the differences between their language and culture and ours, and why only English translations were used, even where in some cases there are not good, contemporary ones: because the reader I have in mind can not be assumed to read Latin or Greek).

I offer this brief apologia of the subtitle in an attempt primarily to clarify the nature of the book. I hope that the AAR community will find it a useful resource for teaching, and a helpful gateway to more verdant scholarly pastures.

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