David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, ed. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 704 pp. $50.00.
As the doctrines of grace (more commonly known as the “five points of Calvinism”) are being discovered, embraced, and cherished by scores of YRRs (or neo-Puritans, neo-Calvinists, neo-Dortians, or whatever your preferred designation/stripe), they are still generally disliked (and often misunderstood) by a majority of Christians. And perhaps all the other four doctrines combined don’t cause as much trouble as the middle petal – “limited atonement.” This no doubt has at least a little to do with the misleading designation, and as the subtext of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her implies and several of the contributors explicitly state, perhaps it’s time to call this flower (or at least the middle petal) by another name.
Long before its release this book was anticipated to become the definitive resource on definite atonement, and now, almost a year after its release, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her is living up to the hype. Boasting a veritable who’s who of contributors (e.g. Haykin, Trueman, Motyer, Schreiner, MacLeod, Letham, Piper, etc.), this volume consists of 23 chapters in four parts addressing definite atonement from the historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.
By beginning with church history, we recognize that all contemporary reading of the Bible on the atonement is historically located. We are not hostages to past interpretations, nor do we need to pretend there is such a thing as tabula rasa (blank slate) exegesis. By carefully attending to Scripture, we seek to submit ourselves to what God has said. By moving from exegesis to theology, we claim that the diverse biblical parts demand the patient work of synthesis to portray the theological whole. By concluding with pastoral practice, we aim to show the implications of the Bible’s teaching for the church’s ministry and mission. So while the discipline of doctrinal thinking is never less than the ordering of all that the Bible has to say on a given subject, it is also much more.
(Gibson & Gibson, 38)
Even a cursory summary is not possible in a blog review for a book of this length, but the book has a fabulous website that contains brief summaries of each chapter. I’ll just hit a few personal highlights. Part I, “Definite Atonement in Church History,” really presents a lot of stellar information that shatters misconceptions that we all might have concerning Calvin, Beza, and the Synod of Dort. Academically the most significant contribution might be Chapter 7, “Controversy on Universal Grace: A Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination” (Amar Djaballah). Amyraut’s BTP had never before been translated into English, neither had there been a detailed published presentation of Amyraut’s main thesis in English, which Djaballah’s chapter provides.
In Part II, “Definite Atonement in the Bible”, my favorite chapters were 12 and 13 by Jonathan Gibson (these are amongst my favorite chapters in the entire book). Chapter 12 addresses the particularistic texts, universalistic texts, “perishing” texts (which concern Christ’s death for those who may finally perish) in Paul’s epistles. In Chapter 13 Gibson points out that while robust exegesis of these texts are surely important to discussions on the intent and scope of the atonement, employing these texts alone most often results in an impasse in the discussion. And so, in Chapter 13 Gibson proposes a new way forward – a biblico-systematic approach. “Isolated exegesis of individual texts…does not prove or disprove the doctrine of definite atonement in Paul—a larger soteriological framework must be respected” (332). See here for a stellar quote from the introduction to this chapter.
It’s hard for me to pick favorites in Part III because I love theology. But if my arm was twisted, I’d pick Chapter 19 by Wellum: The New Covenant Work of Christ: Priesthood, Atonement, and Intercession. Here Wellum skillfully presents the case that Christ’s High Priesthood necessarily entails a particular redemption by placing the discussion within the typological pattern of priesthood and placing the priesthood within the biblical covenants. I love that this book ends with a section on pastoral perspectives; while we know that orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxy and that theology should fuel doxology, it doesn’t always happen naturally/easily. This section reminds us that the definite atonement debate isn’t just an intellectual exercise, but instead this precious doctrine fuels missions and evangelism, bolsters our assurance, and causes us to truly exult in God’s glory and His grace.
From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective needs to quickly become the go-to book on the issue of the extent of the atonement. Of course, as a collection of essays some are better than others and there’s some repetition (e.g. many of the texts Schreiner treats in his chapter are dealt with in others), but I doubt a better/more comprehensive treatment of definite atonement can be found in any other single volume. Whether one ascribes to definite atonement and would like to have a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of it or one rejects this doctrine but would like to become acquainted with the other side of the debate, this book needs to be engaged with. This is a moderately academic book and a beastly (though for me, delightful) 667 pages (not including back matter), so it’s not for the faint-of-heart. Those who would most enjoy this book are obviously Christians who love to read (big books) and have an academic bent in relation to biblical and theological studies. However, because this book is so significant and unique, I’d say that everyone (especially those who cherish the doctrine of definite atonement) should have it on their shelf, at least as a reference to consult.
While this book definitely has value as a reference because of the wide variety of topics covered, I do highly recommend reading it cover-to-cover and in order, even if one takes a long time to get through it. This is because the primary strength of this volume is the comprehensive nature in which definite atonement is dealt with from so many different angles. There’s a synergy (haha!!) at work here, with the strength of the entire volume being greater than the sum of its parts.