Monday, October 15, 2007

Howard Marshall: Aspects of Atonement

I've just finished reading through Howard Marshall's new book Aspects of Atonement. The main strength of this book is not in some wild and outrageously new intepretation of Jesus' death, rather, its strenght lies in the common sensical and straight forward argumentations that typifies Marshall's approach. Marshall engages a topic that is heated, disputed, prone to misunderstandings of the text, and prone to misrepresentations about what recent interpreters think the text says. To cut a long story short, Marshall believes in penal substitution, but he also shows how the death of Jesus must be understood in categories wider than penal substitution.

Chapter one: The Penalty of Sin

Marshall here sets out the debate about penal substitution and offers a discussion about biblical metaphors and he offers several "basic affirmations" including:

1. We are saved from the consequences of our sin by the grace of God and not by anything that we ourselves can do.
2. In the death of Jesus, the Father and the Son are acting together in love, so that there is no question that the Son was acting to persuade an otherwise unwilling Father to forgive; the source of the atonement lies in the gracious agreement of Father and Son.
3. The decisive element in our salvation is the death of Jesus, or rather, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
4. This death is the death of one who is, at one and the same time, the Son of God and the sinless human being, the second Adam.
5. It follows that the incarnation was an essential condition of that saving action.
6. The salvation secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes effective through the work of the Holy Spirit and through the faith of the recipient.
7. The main results of the atonement are, negatively, to deliver us from the guilt and power of sin and, positively, to restore us to a right relationship with God with all that that involves (pp. 9-10).

Chapter two: The Substitutionary Death of Jesus

Here Marshall discusses the holiness and wrath of God (with a good discussion of P.T. Forsyth) and how it relates to various metaphors for atonement: sacrifice, curse, redemption/ransom, reconciliation, forgiveness. Marshall also deals with the view that penal substitution implies a violent and angry God. In an extended footnote he takes Joel Green and Mark Baker to task on the grounds that: (1) Their book ignores or caricatures the NT teaching on wrath and judgment; (2) The sacrificial languge of the NT is largely set aside and its implications ignored. I like Marshall's quote about Gal. 3.13: "Jesus bears the curse of God on our behalf. If that is not penal substitution I do not know what it is". Marshall does note though that one aspect that does count in Green and Baker's favour is Acts where "Salvation is understood as status-reversal, but what makes the status-reversal possible is not disucssed" (pp.53-54). On the allegation of divine child abuse he says: "There is an indissoluble unity between Father, Son, and Spirit in the work of redemption. The recognition that it is God the Son, that is to say quite simply God, who suffers and dies on the cross, settles the question finally. This is God himself bearing the consequences of sin, not the abuse of some cosmic child" (p. 56). Marshall does however think that what some Evangelicals say about Jesus' death (e.g. Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 575) assert an unbiblical position that God was angry with his Son, but this is a clear minority position (p.63). He regards Rom. 3.25 as teaching both expiation and propitiation or when sin is cancelled God's wrath is appeased (p. 42). Against those who link penal substitution to limited atonement (e.g. Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, Pierced for our Transgression), Marshall says: "Those of us who were brought up on Hammond, T.C. In Understanding be Men were forewarned against that misapprehension. The doctrine of penal substitution is not part of package which also contains as essential the concepts of particular election and limited (or definite) atonement" (p. 63). In the end, Marshall prefers the term: "substitutionary suffering and death" (pp. 65-66).

Chapter three: Raised for our Justification

This was a chapter near and dear to my heart. Marshall shows how atonement, forgiveness, and justification are indebted to BOTH the cross of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Sad to say, I have not yet convinced Marshall that 1 Tim. 3.16 refers to "justification" as opposed to "vindication".

Chapter four: Reconciliation: Its Centrality and Relevance

Marshall proposes that reconciliation is the central concept underlying the biblical teaching on atonement (somewhat reminiscient of R.P. Martin). He concludes with these words: "I would claim, then, that our enquiry has demonstrated that reconciliation is a model that expresses clearly the basic pattern of human need, God's action, and the resultant new situation that shapes all the biblical imagery of salvation, and that it does so in a way that is particularly comprehensive and is especially relevant in a world where the need for new relationships between human beings is so clamant" (p. 132).

All in all this is a good little book and one for all young students and pastors should read. This is classic Marshall (not bad for an Arminian!) and welcome successor to his earlier book, Jesus the Saviour.


James K. said...

Michael, I always appreciate your blog, and am sad that my first comment is so unsubstantial, but do you or any of your readers know how to actually get your hands on Marshall's new book on the American side of the pond? It seems like an important contribution by a very level-headed and competent scholar to what has become a heated discussion, and I look forward to reading it.

Michael F. Bird said...

James, try or the Paternoster website. Alternatively Wipf & Stock might have copies in sometime soon.

John B. Higgins said...

Thanks for the great summary.

Two questions:
1. What is the object of God's wrath if not the Son? If sin, that seems to abstract, don't you think?

2. Why does he think that penal substitution does not entail definite atonement?