Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Understand the Atonement

Donald Macleod is probably a common name, both in the U.K., and in Canada and the U.S, and maybe other countries as well. The Donald Macleod whose book I am reviewing here is the one who, from 1978--2011, was professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, Scotland. His new book, called Christ Crucified, Understanding the Atonement, is published by InterVarsity Press and available at Now that he is retired from teaching, maybe Macleod will honor us with more books in future.

His book is laid out in two parts: Part 1: The way of the cross, which is not a chronology of the life of Christ, but rather Macleod reports on what the Gospel writers describe as they focus on Christ's suffering and death, under these three headings: 1) A man of sorrows; 2) From the third to the ninth hour; and 3) The divine paradox: the crucified Son. Macleod reminds us that  while the teaching of Jesus was important it was not where "his primary significance lay. It lay in his death." Macleod points out that earlier the Gospel writers showed little interest in chronological happenings in Jesus' life, but now, from the Last Supper to his burial, only 24 hours, there is a detailed account of his last few hours and we read about what was happening at the 3rd hour (morning), the 6th hour (mid-day), and the 9th hour. Macleod says "such detail is remarkable, and serves to underline the evangelists' [Gospel writers] concentration on Jesus' death." Part 1 closes with Athanasius (c. 296--373), Augustine (354--430), Anselm (c. 1033--1109) and Aquinas (1224--74) all attesting to Christ's vicarious sacrifice with his death on the cross.

Part 2 is called The word of the cross, and it is longer and consists of 11 sections, each beginning with a theological word and phrase. For example: Substitution [Christ dying for us]; Expiation, Propitiation,  Reconciliation, Satisfaction, Vicarious, Redemption, Victory. But, after all that, Macleod says "The linguistic arguments are secondary. This is not a debate about words. It is a debate about something absolutely fundamental: the Christian doctrine of God." And Macleod brings up A.A. Hodge, who in his book The Atonement said that "the words 'expiation' and 'propitiation' represent the same Greek word and as far as he is concerned [Hodge] each has the same legitimacy." Sometimes it's fun to listen in on these discussions. I enjoyed this book and recommend it. Macleod imagines thoughts and conversations as we walk through Holy Week with those who were there, as well as the opinions of theologians from Paul on down to Warfield, McGrath and many others.

---Lois Sibley