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Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Simon Gathercole)

Simon Gathercole. Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 128 pp. $19.99.

Defending SubstitutionDefending Substitution is the latest volume in Baker Academic’s Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series. Sponsored by Acadia Divinity College and in conjunction with its Hayward Lectureship, this series is designed to offer brief, accessible volumes that present the cutting edge of academic biblical and theological scholarship in a form amenable to the nonspecialist. In Defending Substitution, Simon Gathercole offers a brief and accessible overview of the most prominent objections to substititionary atonement and provides a brief but robust positive defense of the the doctrine.

Gathercole begins in the introduction by setting forth his modest aim of arguing that “Christ’s death for our sins, in our place, instead of us, is in fact a vital ingredient in the biblical (in the present discussion, Pauline) understanding of the atonement. It should be emphasized, however, that the argument here does nothing to undermine the importance of representation and participation. Rather, the point is that substitution can happily coexist with them” (14). He also briefly defines substitutionary atonement and clarifies what he will and will not address in this short volume. Specifically, the focus is narrowly on substitution as Christ’s death instead of us, in our place and not on related issues such as representation, propitiation, and satisfaction. Gathercole concludes the introduction by briefly addressing some common theological, philosophical, logical, and exegetical objections to substitution. It is exegetical objections that are the focus of this study.

In chapter 1 Gathercole addresses three prominent cases against substitution: the Tübingen understanding of representative “place-taking,” interchange in Christ, and apocalyptic deliverance. He notes the strengths of each of these positions but also points out their difficulties and weaknesses. Gathercole points out their common weakness of downplaying the importance of individual sins/transgressions. The next two chapters make a positive case for substitution, with chapter 2 focusing on 1 Corinthians 15:3 and chapter 3 focusing on Romans 5:6-8. Chapter 2 first makes a case for the central importance of Christ’s death “for our sins” in Paul, then examines the influence of Isaiah 53 on 1 Corinthians 15:3, next draws attention to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death in 1 Corinthians 15:3, and finally looks at 1 Corinthians 15:3 as a test case for whether the Tubingen view of representative “place-taking” works. Next an excursus is devoted to responding to the objection of why Christians still die if atonement is substitutionary. Gathercole notes four elements or “kinds” of deaths (literal deaths of believers, metaphorical deaths of believers, deaths of nonbeliever, death of Christ) that need to be seen in the background in order to see how this objection is not valid.

In the final chapter, Gathercole mines the classical literature of antiquity to show that “Paul’s language about Jesus dying ‘for us’ echoes very closely the language used frequently in non-Christian literature to describe substitutionary or vicarious deaths” (85). The upshot is that “Jesus’s death is both similar and different: it is comphrehensible to a gentile as a substitutionary death like other, more familiar cases, but it is also a shocking instance of it” (86). He notes examples of conjugal love (Acelstis), friendship (Phintias and Damon), and family members (Philonides). In comparison of these classical examples with what Paul wrote in Romans 5, the point of commonality is that there is a death of one person for another. The difference is that in the case of Christ the death is for an enemy, not a spouse or friend or family member.

Defending Substitution is an excellent introduction to some of the scholarly debate surrounding the atonement and provides a brief and accessible exegetical defense of substitutionary atonement through two Pauline texts. It’s a great book for laity with academic interest in soteriology as well as beginning Bible college or seminary students. Given its intended audience and intentionally limited scope, there’s really nothing to criticize in this book.

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon



Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain)

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 176 pp. $19.99.

Reformed CatholicityTo many modern Christian ears, “Reformed catholicity” sounds like an oxymoron. Reformed theology is often perceived as anti-catholic and pursuing catholicity can be seen as abandoning the tenets of the Reformation and returning to Rome. Reformed Theological Seminary professors Michael Allen and Scott Swain have written Reformed Catholicity to argue that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (4) and to provide a manifesto for a Reformed-catholic ressourcement for the sake of mission and renewal. Their thesis is that “there are Reformed theological and ecclesiological warrants for pursuing a program of retrieval, that we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles, and that pursuing this path holds promise for theological and spiritual renewal” (13).


Book Review – Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship (Bruce Ellis Benson)

Bruce Ellis Benson. Liturgy As a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 160 pp. $19.99.

liturgyLiturgy as a Way of Life is part of “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series from Baker Academic under the editorship of James K. A. Smith. The aim of this series is to “bring together high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology to write for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church” (from series preface). I was drawn to this particular title because the arts have always been a huge part of my life – from playing classical piano and participating in choirs, plays, and musicals throughout my youth (all prior to my Christian conversion) to leading musical worship and participating in a performing arts ministry as a Christian. However, this book is not specifically aimed at people like me; it was written for everyone, not just artists in the usual/technical sense.

In Liturgy as a Way of Life, Wheaton philosophy professor Bruce Ellis Benson contends that we are God’s works of art and that God calls us all to be artists (though not necessarily in the technical sense). Using the concept of improvisation with jazz music as the model, Benson demonstrates that our very lives ought to be seen as art and that we ought to live liturgically.

Ultimately, my goal here is to explore the deep and interpenetrating relationship of life, art, and worship, though not with the intent of merely sketching some theory about their relationship. Instead, it is about working out a way of life that can be properly termed “liturgical.”

(Benson 17)