"Exploring Christology and Atonement" by Andrew Purves. A Review

Exploring Christology and Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh and T. F. Torrance
Andrew Purves
IVP Academic
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-4077-9; $30.00; August 2015
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Atonement in Christian thinking is a subject with a protracted and polychromatic history. From the earliest days to the present there have been proponents of recapitulation in Christ, bait and switch, ransom, moral example, Christus Victor, as well as propitiation and penal substitution, just to name a few. The one theme each has in common is that they are all related to the incarnation. On occasion something just a bit different or unique surfaces and catches one’s eye. Andrew Purves, Jean and Nancy Davis Professor of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, recounts and refines the atonement thread of three Scottish theologians in his new book, “Exploring Christology and Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh and T. F. Torrance.” This is a book written by a theologian for theologians and theologically trained pastors; but it is written to make these three Scottish theologians a bit more accessible to those not in-the-know.

Purves introduces “Exploring Christology and Atonement” with an exceptional chapter on locating theology. Since, in the end, the author’s aim is pastoral, then he rightly re-plugs theology back into the life of the church and the life of believers. As he observes, the “goal of both baptism and theology is Christian identity and formation so that the Christian lives and thinks “in Christ”” (20). Therefore, in both discipleship and in doing theology, we “must learn to follow Christ” since “theological knowledge is the fruit of sharing in Christ’s life” (21). The way we rightly do theology, then, must be in communion with Jesus Christ, for he is “both the center of and entry way into the doctrine of God” (22). This brings Purves to point out the importance of theological humility. Theology is always in route; it has not arrived, and therefore is always open to correction and revision as it moves toward becoming more faithful.

From the introduction “Exploring Christology and Atonement” then moves out onto the field setting up in its game formation. The first three chapters approach Christology, with a specific emphasis on the magnificent exchange and union with Christ. In each chapter Purves takes time to bring in the three Scottish theologians, allowing them to briefly speak for themselves. The overarching thrust in the chapters on Christology is that Jesus Christ is the atonement, “Christ does who he is” (38). It quickly, and clearly, becomes obvious that for Purves all three Scottish theologians wanted to move away from what they perceived as an abstract, instrumentalist “forensic” model of atonement, to a more personal and filial union with Christ.

The next three chapters address the atonement specifically, and here the author allows each of the Scottish theologians to have their own chapter. All three, according the Purves, want to move away from Jesus being a satisfaction for the wrath and justice of the Father:

·         McLeod Campbell emphasizes that in the incarnational atonement Jesus brings God to us and us to God, for the atonement is “not a punishment for sin but rather a spiritual and moral access to the Father through Christ’s confessing our sin and through union with Christ, having our adoption as “sons” of God”, for “peace with God is none other than our participation in the life of Christ” and “participation in the love of the Father’s heart” (145-6). Jesus’ death is his confessing our sin and his repentance for our law-breaking, his “amen” to the Father’s judgment on sin; in “offering an adequate repentance, Christ offers the only satisfaction to divine justice that could be called a moral and spiritual, as opposes to a legal, atonement or propitiation” (153).
·         H. R. Mackintosh follows the path McLeod Campbell has laid out, to include Jesus’ vicarious repentance and the movement away from the legal categories of atonement and justification. But H. R. Mackintosh wants to draw in the vicarious suffering of Christ, as he is bringing God to us and us to God. The cross is the place where God’s own anguish and horrific grief over unforgiven sins are displayed, that “atonement, on any level, is costly to the party who forgives. The sin that is forgiven must in a real sense be borne by the party who pardons” (182).
·         Thomas F. Torrance continues this trajectory, going further and deeper. In the incarnation, when Christ takes on our humanity, he takes “our minds and wills in their estrangement from God, bending them back into agreement to God’s will.” Therefore “the atonement is the atoning mediation of Christ as an act of God dealing with sinful humanity in judgment against sin and the atoning mediation of Christ as an act of humankind in confessing our sin and vicariously bearing it before God” (211). It appears to me that for Torrance this means that in the incarnation Jesus assumed our sinful humanity – tainted and contaminated – and from within original sin he acted as one of us and for us. Further, Christ’s incarnation and atonement was for all humankind, his atonement is sufficient and efficient for all humanity; “Christ died for all humankind by taking our common human nature upon himself. This is a finished work, not a possibility. God has taken the soteriological decision on our behalf” (236). Jesus has moved all humankind into the category of “saved”, yet a sinner can say “no” to his new place in Christ, and so in refusing divine love “is shattered unto damnation” (236).

“Exploring Christology and Atonement” ends with a chapter that shows, ever so briefly, how the three Scottish theologians are helpful for faith and ministry. Purves wants to move Christology and atonement proposed in the book out of the abstract and theoretical, because a “theory concerning Jesus has no redemptive impact. It is Jesus who saves” (242). In the end, these three Scottish theologians should be seen and remembered in these ways; “McLeod Campbell, the theologian of the love of God, Mackintosh, the theologian of the experience of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, Torrance, the theologian of the grace of God in Jesus Christ” (254).

“Exploring Christology and Atonement” was a bit of a stiff read, mainly because I have barely read any of these three Scottish theologians. The benefit was that I feel I have a better sense of who they were, what they presented, and how they got there. The book has also helped to stimulate my own thinking on the incarnation of Christ and atonement brought about by Christ. It is a book written by a theologian for theologians and theologically trained pastors; and it is written with a specialized theme in mind. If that theme intrigues you, then I recommend the book to you.

I appreciate the kindness of InterVarsity Press and IVP Academic for the free copy of the book used for this review. 


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