January 20, 2009

I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement

Based in part on his 2004 F. F. Bruce lecture at Highland Theological College, this great little book is an important and even-handed look at the atonement. Its four chapters entail three major foci. The first two chapters deal specifically with the doctrine of penal substitution through a careful look at its two constituent parts, with a careful study of the penalty for sin in chapter 1 and a sustained look at substitution as it relates to the atonement in chapter 2. Throughout these chapters, Marshall carefully takes into account recent critiques of the doctrine as well and weighs them against a careful investigation of the biblical basis. Through this study, he demonstrates the importance of the doctrine of penal substitution but also how it could be better formulated to avoid excesses and misrepresentations. Thus, he carefully critiques and also defends this important doctrine. He looks specifically at issues of violence, wrath, and suffering, as these often come up in critiques of the doctrine. (A proper trinitarian understanding of God and God's action plays a central role here.) In all, he forcefully demonstrates that the fundamental ideas behind the doctrine of penal substitution are important and essential facets of a doctrine of atonement.

In the third chapter, Marshall sets out to investigate how the resurrection of Jesus relates to atonement. While much thought rightly focuses on Jesus' death as the location of atonement, too often this is done without giving necessary attention to how the resurrection likewise plays an important role. Through a sustained look at Romans 4:25 (Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification), Marshall shows how the resurrection can and should play a helpful and central role in our thinking about atonement, especially as it is connected with the them of new life, and how it should be seen as an essential part of God's work of justification.

In the fourth chapter, Marhshall puts forth reconciliation as a helpful overall scheme for thinking of the atonement. While reconciliation and its attendant word forms are not prevalent in the New Testament, Marshall shows how related themes of forgiveness and peace, which play an important part in the NT, point toward reconciliation as an important and helpful way of thinking about what the atonement accomplishes.

I greatly enjoyed this very readable little book. Marshall is very sensitive to modern critiques of the doctrine of penal substitution, and both shows the value in the critiques and also the enduring value of this historic doctrine. For any who are interested in this ongoing debate, I highly recommend this book. It is also very valuable for its second half, with a great discussion of resurrection and of reconciliation. In all, this is a great exposition of the doctrine of the atonement.

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