Atonement, Law, and Justice (Book Review)

There are several topics that have dominated theological discussions over the past several years. Prominent among these discussions is the topic of the atonement. Although the atonement has been a popular theological topic among non-evangelical Christians for some time now, it is only in the last decade or so that the atonement has become a hot button issue for evangelicals. Usually the discussion among evangelical theologians about the atonement has revolved around debates over penal substitution (PSA). Opponents of PSA have claimed that it “paints a picture of God as a bloodthirsty tyrant or a cosmic child abuser.” Although Adonis Vidu does not spend a lot of time addressing PSA – he believes that these objections are misguided – he roots his apologetic for traditional atonement theories in the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Vidu’s primary thesis in this book is that “the history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law.” He is clear on the fact that he does not think justice theories explain the development of atonement theory, rather that theologians are influenced by contemporary theories of justice and that contemporary atonement theories also influence theories of justice. In order to show the relationship between theories of justice and atonement theories Vidu takes the reader on at +2,000 year long journey detailing various theories of justice and their relationship to atonement theories. He begins by tracing the contours of justice and divine forgiveness in ancient Greece and Rome, however this is primarily for the purpose of setting up a discussion of Patristic thoughts on justice, the law, and Christos Victor (or dramatic theories of atonement). Here he covers Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s understanding of law and of atonement. Vidu goes on to address what he calls the “Legal Revolution” during the medieval period. During this period law became more professionalized than ever, and canon law came to the forefront. This created a shift from the patristic age, which saw justice as primarily about reconciliation to seeing justice as objective and commensurate with divine justice. This leads to the “legal based” atonement theories of Anselm and Aquinas, though Dun Scotus bucks this trend. However Dun Scotus deviation from the norm can still be understood as participating within the same overall conversation – except he concludes that law is completely arbitrary, so atonement need not have occurred in a way that “satisfies” the conditions of justice. Vidu also discusses Abelard’s atonement theory, which contrary to popular belief still has justice at its center point. Eventually we get to the Reformation, here the relationship between Law and Atonement becomes even more complicated – due to diverging views of the nature and purpose of the Mosaic law. This variance in views on the Mosaic law leads to a split between how Luther (crudely anti-law) and Calvin (crudely pro-law) understand the atonement. Modernity however represents a completely different shift in the conversation. During modernity morality was severed from legality and law began to be defined primarily as the will of the people. This led to the search for atonement theories which emphasized morality over the legal nature of atonement. Finally we get to the postmodern period which Vidu believes is tied together by its rejection of violence within atonement. Post-modernism has rejected any and all violence and has rejected law as a form of perpetuating violence, and therefore tries to disentangle God from this violence, thereby rejecting violent atonement theories.

“The history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law.” – Adonis Vidu

The most interesting chapter in the book is the final chapter, Adonis Vidu’s discussion of atonement theory and divine simplicity. In this chapter he argues that tradition by and large has always affirmed Divine Simplicity the upshot of this affirmation is that it will affect the way we describe divine action. Unlike all other agents God’s actions spring uniquely from his nature, in the sense that they have unity in ways that are unlike human agents. Human agents are fragmented in a sense, we often feel “a strife of attributes,” God however experiences no such strife because God is simple. That is, there is no action of God that is more just than loving or more loving than just, etc. because all of God’s actions are motivated by all of God’s attributes, which just are God’s being. Vidu notes that this has several implications for atonement theory:

1) God never enacts certain attributes more than others – God simply is his attributes. This makes the opposition of love and wrath impossible. While his attributes remain distinct they are never in competition

2) There is unity in divine action. This means that the Father cannot stand against the Son, etc. The Godhead is the subject of each divine action, the works of the trinity are undivided.

3) God is not moved from wrath to mercy. Divine simplicity and immutability does not allow this. There can be no change in how God feels about humanity, only his treatment of humanity has changed.

The final upshot of his thesis is that since God – being simple – acts in different ways than human beings do, we cannot strictly speak about law, justice, and atonement as tough God were simply some really big, wise, powerful human being. God’s justice, and how he enacts justice, is different than our justice and how we enact it. At best we can speak of God’s justice analogically, not univocally.

Overall this was a very fascinating book. A couple of my biggest takeaways were that…

1)The Patristic theologians (contrary to popular belief) really were concerned about justice, though their understanding of justice is different than ours.

2)Abelard’s moral exemplar theory (unlike modern moral exemplar theories) really is concerned about justice too.

3) Divine simplicity is vital to the doctrine of atonement.

If you are looking for a book that is both a survey of atonement theories in their historical and cultural contexts as well as a constructive contribution to the atonement conversation then look no further, because you get both of those things in Atonement, Law, and Justice. This book is definitely a contender for my top books of 2014 list.

This is definitely the most interesting book on the doctrine of atonement published this year.

Note: I received this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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