This is a guest post from a colleague of mine at Houston Baptist University, Matt Davis.
What happens in theology when we are not asking the right question? Andrew Purves tackles this in his latest book, “Exploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance.”
To address this, he opens and closes this work saying, “This book offers an account of the relations between Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate Son, and the Father, the result of which is the atonement, for in the incarnate Son the relation between God and humankind is savingly established” (9, 253). Some readers will immediately notice in what he does say (as well as what he does not say) what path he hopes to take the reader on. This book is aimed to engage just this sort of reader, as well as those who are prepared to learn just what he implies in his thesis.
Okay, all well and good. So, what is the “wrong” question?
Well, for Purves, it could take a number of variations, but it is any question that too easily allows us to separate our answers on the atonement from the Incarnation (and its manifold implications). Some might ask whether a book is needed at all for this. Is it even possible to separate the atonement from involving Jesus? Is he not, you know, sort of necessary for the whole thing? Purves brings his own education and his summary of the contributions of three Scottish theologians – Campbell, Mackintosh, and Torrance – to this conversation. They respond, yes, some people have talked about the atonement in a way that displaces the central, mediating role of the incarnate Jesus.
How then should we approach the topic? It is here, in his introduction, that Purves begins. Like an experienced guide, he gives us two reminders for the path ahead: first, “We do theology because we are baptized” (17); and, second, “All theology is en route” (23). That is, we must remember the theological journey is not simply one of knowledge but, primarily, an act of worship. And because we are limited, both epistemologically and ontologically, we should tread clothed in humility as we discover and attempt to understand that which has been revealed. We should be hesitant to put too much emphasis on anything detached from these realities – whether trusting too deeply in reason or in things that have not been revealed to us.
What sort of question(s) should we ask? How should we consider the atonement? Over the course of the next three chapters, what was implicit in his introduction becomes more explicit: Purves believes these three Scottish theologians help us to keep our course by reminding us that there is no atonement without the incarnation. In chapter two, Purves argues that we begin with the incarnate Son, not a priori but a posteriori, because this is where Scripture begins. The questions in the gospels and epistles, rather than speculative, abstract philosophical questions, center us on the supremacy of this revelation, this image of the invisible God. Chapter three deepens the argument, calling us to realize the power of understanding the hypostatic union of Christ to overcome any tendency to reduce the necessity of Christ in the atonement “as only forgiveness of sins or amelioration of God’s wrath or substituted punishment” (100). Finally, in chapter four, by understanding the depth and implications of the “magnificent exchange” we realize the grace of God effects not simply our legal standing with Him, but also our ability to become like Him.
It is from this point that Purves devotes a chapter to each theologian to summarize their contributions and provides “theological engagement” (i.e., from other theologians, as well as Purves) with those contributions at the end of each chapter. (Interestingly, Campbell’s “theological engagement” section is by far the longest compared to the brevity for Mackintosh’s and Torrance’s chapters.)
Purves ties up all his exploration in the last chapter with practical theology – that is, with its import for faith, worship, and ministry.
A few closing remarks are in order on audience, readability, and recommendation.
This book is for theologians (professional or aspiring) and learned members of ministry who want to know more about the theological contributions of three Scottish theologians to the conversation of Christology and the Atonement. It is not an introductory work on every theory of the atonement, but rather to the contributions of these theologians in that conversation. It is of typical theological density and will be more readable for those already familiar with atonement language and arguments. At times, it is easy to get lost in his writing as he wades through the mountain of things he wants to say, say well, and say within the scope and word limits of this work. (This is, admittedly, a minor criticism for me, but seemed worth noting for some readers.)
All in all, this book is a labor of love and worship, and every page bears this. I am grateful to have read it.
Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.