T & T Clark Companion to Atonement

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Adam J. Johnson
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , July
     874 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Bloomsbury Companion series offers single volume entrées to particular fields of research in the humanities, and Adam J. Johnson has admirably achieved that with this volume. As the title, T&T Clark Companion to Atonement, not “the Atonement,” indicates, Johnson has kept his remit as broad as possible. This Companion is in two parts: part 1 is comprised of eighteen articles (averaging twenty pages each) and part 2 of eighty-five essays (up to five pages each) written by some eighty-nine contributors. The second part is alphabetical by title with entries falling into one of three categories: theological studies, biblical studies, and key theologians. With so broad a remit Johnson understandably laments in his preface the omission of “so many…the list of omissions is [so] vast as to be discouraging.” Nevertheless this volume of over one hundred contributions will prove a useful resource in English-language scholarship for its target audience of postgraduates, scholars, and libraries (this according to the series website), and I would argue that the short entries will prove useful for undergraduates, providing a versatile handbook.

This broad remit has resulted in editorial guidelines that did not require unanimity among his contributors, but neither did it give them occasion to respond to one another. For example, Fred Sanders critiques John Behr (23-24), who seems unaware of this in his own entry (569-78). Nevertheless, Johnson has gathered an array of signal (if standalone) voices from divergent traditions: Catholic (Thomas G. Weinandy, Paul D. Molnar), Orthodox (John Behr, John A. McGuckin), and Protestant, whether Reformed (Fred Sanders, Donald Fairbairn, Oliver D. Crisp) or Wesleyan (Joel B. Green) scholars—albeit largely male and white. In a volume meant to fuel future research, a summary article on non-Anglophone research would have been welcome, not to mention adding more women—women represent well under ten percent of the contributors, and the global reach is limited to a few British Commonwealth scholars. Finally, in more ways than one, the bibliography does not inspire. Postgraduate and specialist researchers may well be inspired by the rich table, but the lack of interaction internally and externally with modern European scholarship, not to mention the weak bibliography, will hamper its appeal for some.

Johnson’s introductory article provides a state of the question update, but does not directly engage or frame the divergent content. Several authors provide well argued perspectives on the classical options or corrective apologies, such as that of John A. McGuckin, who attempts to redeem the oft lampooned “fish-hook” cause célèbre of Gregory of Nyssa (155-73). As is clear from this example, some knowledge of atonement is beneficial, especially for the longer articles. The bread and butter of this volume, however, is the article by Joel B. Green: “Theologies of the Atonement in the New Testament” (115-34). Green walks us through atonement in the New Testament: synoptic gospels, Luke-Acts, the writings of John, Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, delineating the different approaches taken and images offered—new research opportunities abound on nearly every page. Three additional articles need to be highlighted: Adam Kotsko argues that the original ransom theory colors every subsequent model; Stephen R. Holmes argues that penal substitution, although repugnant now to many, should be retained, “because it has things to tell us about the nature of the atonement which we cannot hear so clearly anywhere else” (314); and Oliver D. Crisp’s contribution on method could, with some unpacking, be the basis of a research methods seminar using the focus on atonement as an example of theological method.

There are too many additional contributors to discuss here, but Johnson has provided a rich table that offers not only top notch articles, but enticing aromatic blends as well. For example, if you step back and take a “syntopical” approach (see Mortimer Adler’s, How to Read a Book, Simon & Schuster 1940; 2nd ed. 1972) fascinating synergies emerge. For example, Paul Louis Metzger on culture, Joel B. Green on atonement in the New Testament, Trevor A. Hart on imagination, and Stephen R. Holmes on penal substitution are all worth reading on their own, and they will interact on what Holmes terms “culture plausibility” or “purchase” (312-13) if one steps back to consider the missional value of a particular atonement articulation. For example, Green writes, “The reach of the cross may be universal, but the message of the cross must be articulated in context specific ways” (130). Holmes indicates that penal substitution doctrine “depended on a particular understanding of criminal justice which is no longer dominant . . . so the doctrine is potentially anachronistic” (296). He goes on to highlight that several theories of the atonement have passed into history as “victims of their own cultural locatedness” (311). Thus, the feudal world assumed by Anselm (307) or Calvin’s forensic assumptions (296) may obfuscate more than clarify atonement today. The (short) essays by Metzger and Hart reinforce this. For example, Metzger asserts, “Theologies of the atonement emerge in various cultural contexts” (451). This opens a fertile space for reflection on the missional and thus the constructive enculturalization of current articulations of atonement, both in new historical understandings of the biblical context and in constructive approaches that most effectively articulate atonement to a postmodern world. This is only one example of how reading across-the-grain as it were can inspire new inquiry. For others no doubt different synergies will resonate.

If read to enhance one’s own confessional convictions or existing research agenda this volume may disappoint. The remit is overbroad, and there is no dialogue between authors of opposing viewpoints. The boxing ring is empty, but it is encircled by tables like a French café complete with loud voices, lots of coffee, and the occasional expletive! You will not agree with everything you read, but everything you read will inspire—if you let it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Ables is Adjunct Faculty in the College of Christian Studies, George Fox University.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Johnson is assistant professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.



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