Approaching the Atonement

The Reconciling Work of Christ

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Oliver D. Crisp
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , February
     2020.
     208 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851973.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The doctrine of the atonement lies near the heart of the Christian faith, so a vast expanse of literature exists proposing, critiquing, and rearticulating various views of Christ’s work on the cross. As such, taking stock of the types of doctrines on offer through Christian history is a hefty task, but Oliver Crisp’s Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ does just that. Across its ten tightly written chapters, this book introduces key terminology useful to study the atonement, frames considerations of this topic, and provides both constructive and critical commentary on the major interpretive streams present in historical and contemporary thought.

There are a number of noteworthy features that set this volume apart from other introductory texts on the atonement, chief among them being that Approaching the Atonement is far from being just an introductory text. While readers who have yet to study the atonement in much depth will find here an accessible entry point into discussions with partners ranging from Irenaeus and Athanasius (ch. 2) to Hans Boersma and J.I. Packer (ch. 9), Crisp also provides creative insights throughout which enliven each chapter. Moreover, there is a generosity characteristic of all Crisp’s writing that is strongly on display here.

For example, he writes, “Christus Victor and ransom views do not yield a complete model of the atonement taken separately or together because neither view can provide a clear mechanism for atonement” (49), but he writes this not to simply tear down these two views. He instead offers this criticism in order to illustrate the way in which Christus Victor and ransom views are better understood within the greater context of patristic conceptions of vicarious substitution, like those described in chapter 2, than as standalone doctrines in themselves. “This reparative action not only provides a ransom doctrine of atonement, it also provides an explanation of why this has so often been misunderstood in atonement literature.” (60) A similar move, which provides further evidence of both Crisp’s theological agility and charity, is made in chapter 5 regarding the place of moral exemplarism in doctrines of the atonement.

That said, some will no doubt find points at which they disagree with Crisp’s interpretations, descriptions, and solutions. Doing so will not be difficult as the clarity of his writing ensures the reader is never left wondering what he really means in a given passage, and that in itself is commendable. For instance, as he discusses Anselm’s satisfaction doctrine of the atonement he asks “is satisfaction the same thing as penal substitution?” (68) Though a worthwhile question, Crisp writes that a key point of contrast between the two doctrines is that the latter “presumes that Christ is actually punished in the place of the sinner” (69, italics original) whereas, according to the former, atonement produces “a free gift of merit that may be applied to us as a satisfaction for our sin” (69–70). However, it is not clear to me that this description of penal substitution is necessarily true.

Though many proponents of penal substitution do think Christ was punished for humanity’s sins in the crucifixion, there are also those who do not think Christ was punished. In fact, William Lane Craig has recently defended the possibility of this sort of doctrine of penal substitution in his Atonement and the Death of Christ (Baylor University Press, 2020) despite the fact that he does think that Christ was punished for humanity’s sins. Of course, this disagreement between these two authors likely stems from their differences concerning the complexities of legal theories of punishment, complexities that go far beyond the scope of this review. And so, this point is raised less as something to be counted against the book and more as an example of the way in which it will present opportunities for engagement with its contents to theological novices and experts alike.

Scholars looking primarily to engage Crisp’s thoughts on union with and participation in God through the atonement might be better served by his The Word Enfleshed (Baker, 2016) and Analyzing Doctrine (Baylor University Press, 2019), but there is more than enough to keep them busy here. Indeed, no matter where one is in their study of the atonement there will likely be something worth reading in Approaching the Atonement. That virtue is a rare one and it merits this book’s place on the shelves of a wide audience, but it is likely to be of particular help to those searching for a dynamic introduction to atonement literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Brian Davis is youth & family minister at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Wilson, NC.

Date of Review: 
October 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oliver D. Crisp (PhD, University of London, DLitt, University of Aberdeen) is professor of analytic theology at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of several books, including Analyzing Doctrine: Toward a Systematic TheologySaving Calvinism: Expanding the Reformed TraditionJonathan Edwards Among The Theologians, and The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ. He is a founding editor of the Journal of Analytic Theology, and co-organizes the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference with Fred Sanders.

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