Book Review | Exploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance

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.

 

Here in Jesus

Here in Jesus, as the very heart of God is laid bare in compassion and mercy for man, the human heart is laid bare before God, in such a way that men and women are plucked out of their isolation and estrangement and alienation, out of their hiding place in themselves, and are placed before the light of the majesty and love of God where they must acknowledge the divine judgment upon them. ‘If any man would come after me’, Jesus said, ‘let him deny himself, and follow me.’

Here then, is one who steps into our place, who claims to displace us, and demands that we renounce ourselves for him. Here is a substitution where the guilty do not simply shelter behind the innocent, but such a substitution that the guilty are faced with the light, that men and women are dragged out of their self-imprisonment and brought face to face with God in his compassion and love, for it is God himself who steps into their place and takes their status upon himself. Man is not sheltered from God but exposed to him and bound to him as never before in a bond of forgiveness and reconciliation.

T.F. Torrance – Incarnation (113)

Cataclysmic’s Favorite Books of 2013

Here are some of our top reads from 2013:

Chad Chambers (@ChambersChad)

Favorite Book – T.F. Torrance, Incarnation – not just my favorite book of this year but my favorite book in many years. Hope to read Atonement soon.

Favorite New Book – E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

Better the Second Time – Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, The Spirit of Adoption

For the Fun of It – Stephen King, Doctor Sleep

Jessica Parks (@mrsjessparks)

Favorite Book – Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross

Favorite New Book – T. Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible

Favorite Patristic Writing – Melito of Sardis, On Pascha

Favorite OT Book – Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament

Mike Skinner (@mike_skinner)

Favorite Book – William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture

Favorite Theological Book – Jeff McSwain, Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-Realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances

Favorite “Sermon-Fodder” Book – Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World

Favorite Patristic Writing – Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

Michelle Mikeska (@M_Mikeska)

Favorite Book – Ed. Dallas Lee, The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan

Favorite Book on Revelation – Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into New Creation

Favorite Book on Pedagogy – Ed. David S. Cunningham, To Teach, To Delight, and To Move: Theological Education in a Post-Christian World (Seeks to use rhetoric as a meaningful way to teach theology in a postmodern context)

Favorite NT Intro Book – Ben Witherington III, Invitation to the New Testament: First Things

What were your favorite reads of 2013?

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The End of Time? – T.F. Torrance

I commented on Ann Jervis’ paper at SBL on “Christ and Time” a few days ago. In her paper, she explained how Christ connects time with life not death. Ultimately, death gives way to life and so there is no end of time, life is lived eternally “in Christ time.”

This week in reading T.F. Torrance’s Incarnation I found another interesting discussion of Christ’s relation to time. Torrance, in my reading, seems to argue for a similar conclusion as Jervis that time is an eternal reality. His argument is working from a different starting point, the incarnation, but he affirms that in Christ’s incarnation the eternal is now ‘in union with time.’ Torrance says, 

…The Christian faith pivots upon the fact that here in time we are confronted by the eternal in union with time…Everything in Christianity centres on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin. Whatever christology does…it stands or falls with the fact that here in our actual history and existence is the saviour God.

Torrance even goes so far as to connect God with time (offering an answer to the question asked of Jervis in the session). Torrance says, “The unity of eternity and time in the incarnation means that true time in all its finite reality is not swallowed up by eternity but eternally affirmed as reality even for God.”

One further note from Torrance, I really like how he captures the way we describe God’s activity on earth. He explains that many see it as a divine act in the created world (a view he uses) but he prefers to see it as ‘an eternal act in time.’ He says, It

…is not the perception of revelation divorced from history. Nor is it the perception of history by itself, divorced from revelation, but it is the way we are given within history to perceive God’s act in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus.

The connection of not only creator and created but eternity and time in our understanding of God is fascinating. Revelation as the eternal being joined with the temporal is a wonderful way to explore the mystery of God with us.