What Did the Cross Accomplish?
N. T. Wright, Simon Gathercole and Robert B. Stewart
Westminster John Knox Press, 2021
The approach of Good Friday or other occasions when the focus is on the meaning of the Cross can signal apprehension for those who are called to preach. There is often a deep desire to say something that is fresh and meaningful about this reality at the heart of the Christian Gospel. If we expect this deceptively slim book to offer us an easy-read and a quick fix we will be very disappointed!
What Did the Cross Accomplish? arose out of a theological forum and so the book has a shared authorship. It opens with a contribution from Robert B. Stewart, Professor of Philosophy and Theology and Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
He argues that all good theology, and therefore our theology of the atonement, must work with a worldview. However, as worldviews have to use symbols, the best way into understanding the atonement is through the meaning of Holy Communion. He reminds us that when Jesus wanted his disciples to understand what his death would mean he gave them not a theory but a meal to share. Against the Passover background the meal Jesus gave us is about deliverance and also points us to the future, as we share it ‘till he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Stewart’s contribution is followed by a dialogue between N. T. Wright, leading Biblical scholar and writer, and Simon Gathercole, Reader in New Testament Studies and Director of Studies at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, interspersed with questions from those attending the forum.
One theme which runs through the book is the danger of playing off different models of the atonement, such as Recapitulation, Representation, Substitution, Christus Victor and Moral Example, against each other. Rather they need to be held in creative tension. That may be helpful to those who have to preach on the Cross, reflecting the multi-faceted understanding of the Cross in Scripture. Stewart has also provided a very comprehensive reading list at the end of the book.
Tom Wright’s characteristically wide stress on seeing the Atonement being about a new creation in which human beings are remade and are instrumental in renewing the whole created order also needs to be held in mind, as in Romans 8.
The respect with which the contributors treat each others’ thinking, even when there are differences, is to be commended, and is a model to be followed. However, the volume leaves me with one nagging concern. The contributors all seem to accept the theory of Penal Substitution as a correct way of thinking about the Cross, even though they make clear that this is not about God punishing Jesus for what we have done (which would be downright immoral) but about God himself taking that punishment himself in the person of His Son. However, is penal language ever appropriate in our thinking about the Cross? I have my doubts.
Whatever our answer, we are reminded that as for Saint Paul, so for us that Christ died for our sins is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3) and so it must be in our preaching.
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