"Delivered from the Elements of the World" by Peter J. Leithart. A Review

Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission
Peter J. Leithart
IVP Academic (InterVarsity Press)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5126-3; $30.00; March 2016
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Imaginative and Ingenious; 5 Stars out of 5

My family and I have changed the rules of the game. After playing UNO for years the standard way, we spiced it up with a few extra twists and turns. Now you can stack the “Draw Four” cards, player by player, until there are no more to be played, thus potentially leaving the last participant who doesn’t have any “Draw Four” cards under a substantial pile. And there are other adventurous variations we’ve added, all of which leave the game structurally the same while internally distinctive.  This is the kind of thing Peter J. Leithart, president of Theopolis Institute, adjunct senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, columnists for First Things and accomplished author, does in his new 369 page paperback, “Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission.”  Though he stays within the contours of orthodox Christianity, and specifically the Reformed stream, yet he flavors things with some zesty curls and curves.  The whole undertaking swirls around a phrase and concept penned by St. Paul in Galatians 4, “the elementary principles of the world” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou). It is an academic, theological and pastoral read, chock-full of footnotes and mild technicalities, that aims to begin unpacking what it means to be delivered from the elementary principles of the world; how, “according to the apostle, Jesus delivered Jews and Gentiles from the elemental world into a new social world that operates by different sociophysical laws” (26).

“Delivered from the Elements of the World” falls into four segments that guide the reader from a recognition of what the elements of the world are, to the justice of God, through the category of justification, and ends up in missions. The volume then concludes with three important appendices that are essential addendums to specific material presented in the book.  Throughout the manuscript are numerous footnotes, some taking up a whole page, but enough to make an academic grin and the average reader groan.

In essence, the author is taking Anselm’s question, Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-man?) and asking it as a question of social and political theology; “Cur Deus Homo for the salvation of human society in history” (13)? And his reason is that “if the gospel is about the salvation of humanity it must carry a message of hope for the salvation of human society” (14). Therefore, according to the author, atonement and justification are both churchly (ecclesiological), forming a “new humanity with a renewed socioreligious physis.” For, the “church is, in fact, the first form of transformed human society. This is why the God-man must die and rise: if society is to be saved, there must be a church; if there is going to be a church, there must be a Messiah dead and risen.” This all means, then, that if “the world is to be saved, atonement must become a social fact. If it is going to be plausible, atonement theology must be social theory” (218). Therefore, because baptism binds together diverse humans across national, ethnic and social lines then it “is one of the rites that effects the social salvation of humanity” (222). But also, adversely, a splintered Church – splintered by politics, nationalism, ethnicity, etc. – is a Church that has slipped back under the elementary principles of the world, into what Leithart denominates as “Galatianism” (258-281). And that is bad news, not only for the Church, but also for the world.

In the end, the author wants us to grasp that the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has brought about a regime change that has social consequences. The world is under new management; it is no longer under ta stoicheia tou kosmou, but under the Lordship of Jesus. And this change impacts all humankind (203-4), even affecting the shape of world religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism (239-257).

Though I have not done justice to “Delivered from the Elements of the World” in this short review, passing over several crucial aspects and arguments, yet hopefully I have given the proper sense. There will be items in the book readers will likely argue with, as I did. And to quote the book at an ordination exam will probably incite riots and raise a ruckus; nevertheless it is a volume worth engaging and tackling, especially if the reader will approach it not as a definitive divinity declaration, but rather as a speculative thought-experiment into how big might the atonement actually be! John Murray, in his article on “The Atonement” only touched the margins of this subject when he delved into the extent of the atonement. Leithart takes the ball and runs it further down the field. This is a book highly worth obtaining, reading and discussing.

Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “Delivered from the Elements of the World” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).

Feel free to re-plublish or re-post this review; but please give credit where credit is due. Mike


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