As Christians, we believe that the death of Jesus on the cross accomplished something, namely dealing with the sin and death problem that has faced all of humanity since Adam’s fall in the Garden. With that said, what exactly was accomplished, for whom, when, and how it all plays out has been a source of debate among biblical scholars. Some aver substitutionary atonement while others support a more representative approach to Christ’s sacrifice. Professor Simon Gathercole in his helpful book Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul unpacks a difficult theological subject in an effort to demonstrate the validity from a biblical perspective of substitutionary atonement.
The focus of this book is not to provide an in-depth or exhaustive discussion of this topic not to interact with every single argument present over the years in favor of or in opposition to substitutionary atonement. Conversely, the purpose is to provide a definition of substitutionary atonement, to show its importance in particular in two key Pauline passages, to interact with some representative criticisms and alternative viewpoints, with again the underlying purpose being to show that substitutionary atonement is an essential and vital element for grasping what Christ did for us.
Gathercole provides valuable interaction with three specific alternative viewpoints to what Christ did, namely the Tubingen View, Hooker’s Interchange View, and finally the Apocalyptic Deliverance View. I found the discussion of these views to be quite valuable and Gathercole does a great job of noting their respective positions as well as their merits. It was interesting to note that portions of these views are valid; however as Gathercole aptly summarizes, “they adopt a particular view of the atonement in Paul, and this theory tends to take on the role of a dominant or all-encompassing explanation.” Those dominant explanations seem to focus on sin collectively while failing to interact with the reality that Paul does deal with specific sins in relation to the atonement.
Chapters 2 and 3 provide some excellent theological reading as Gathercole interacts with two key Pauline passages – 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Romans 5:6-8. He keys in on some specific portions of both passages that speak of Christ doing something for us. This is by definition an act of substitution, the action of one on behalf of another. The discussion provided by Gathercole on the examples from classical literature that reveal the concept of a friend willingly dying for another was quite interesting. What this discussion reveals is more than the fact that substitution was an act understood prior to and during the time of Paul. The real point of importance Gathercole drives home is the fact Christ did far more than what was demonstrated in classical literature. Unlike those examples, “Christ’s death creates a friendship where there had been enmity” meaning even though we showed ourselves not to be friends of God, even though we have failed our marriage vows, and even though we have rejected relationship with God, Christ dies for us. Such love was unknown in the classical literature examples, thus revealing the true nature of Christ’s sacrifice, one of love for those who were an enemy of God.
Written in an easy to read lecture style that is accessible to both scholars and laymen, this book is an important read. While Gathercole does not engage every minute detail of substitutionary atonement, that is not his intention. He set out to show that substitutionary atonement is indeed taught by Paul and forms an important element of the Pauline discussion on this topic. To some degree, substitutionary atonement can co-exist with representation and other perspectives; however, there can be no doubt that substitutionary atonement is aptly defended by Gathercole in this book and rightly so. I highly recommend this book as a valuable resource. It will prove to be a relatively quick read but it will also be a text the reader will refer to in future studies of substitutionary atonement.
This book is available for purchase from Baker Academic by clicking here.
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