Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross

As we rapidly approach Holy Week, the thoughts of many Christians will turn to the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross. The biblical texts are clear on this point: Jesus' death and resurrection were a necessary part of God's plan to overthrow evil and redeem creation. And so the church repeats again the truth that "Christ died to save sinners."

Exactly how his death accomplished this feat isn't so clear. Across the pages of the New Testament, a multitude of images and metaphors are used to explain what Jesus' death meant. These include sacrifice, ransom, battle, covenant, worship, and personal relationship. Since the time of Christ, the church and its theologians have wrestled with the meaning of the cross in their particular time and place. Various versions of atonement theology have arisen across the ages, including Christus Victor, Recapitulation, and, most famously, Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

In Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Green and Baker cover in some detail the various atonement images used across the pages of scripture, as well as the more popular explanations from church history. In doing so, they come to the conclusion that there are so many images because there can be no single explanation covering the saving significance of the cross and resurrection. Instead, atonement is a multi-faceted concept that is best described using a variety of images. The New Testament writers followed this model; so, too, should Christians today avoid claiming any one model as THE model explaining the work of the cross.

This, of course, has raised no little controversy. To many Christians, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is most definitely the singular explanation of the saving significance of the cross. From Kirk Cameron to John Piper, voices have been raised in protest, arguing that denying PSA is denying the gospel. But Green and Baker make a powerful case that other images are truer to the biblical message; in fact, they agree with many who claim that PSA is a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of wrath, that it too often leads to the support of abuses of power, and that it paints an unhealthy picture of God.

In the end, the authors believe it more important to seek out new ways of explaining the cross in our current contexts. Shame-based cultures will need to hear a different telling than would guilt-based cultures. The model used in Japan could and should be different from the model used in central Africa, which would differ still from models used on college campuses in the U.S. The basics are all the same - sin and rebellion have left humanity alienated from God, the source of all life. But on the cross Jesus has overcome the effects of sin and rebellion, and created new opportunities for life and wholeness for humanity.

From that starting point, Christians are encouraged to think broadly and deeply, exploring how their culture experiences the effects of sin, and what salvation means to them. Green and Baker offer some examples of this in action, using models developed in Great Britain, Tanzania, Japan, and the U.S. They then encourage the reader to move beyond simply accepting models created centuries ago across the world, and to ponder what the cross means in our world, and how best we can articulate that to those around us.

This is the 2nd Edition of Recovering the Scandal, and it has been heavily updated to reflect the decade of atonement discussion since its first publishing; in addition, sections have been expanded and clarified in response to criticisms of the first edition. It is an important read for anyone seeking to understand the broader atonement debate that has opened up in the last 10 years; it is equally important to anyone seeking to understand the meaning of the cross in their life, and in the world.

Note: Mark Baker was my professor in seminary, and he gave me a free copy of this book for the purpose of this review. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the book, although the reader would never know it was me. . .

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