Tanwin’s Book Review: November 2022

21 Dec 2022

by Tanwin Tanoto

Book reviewed: Jackson W. The Cross in Context: Reconsidering Biblical Metaphors for Atonement (IVP: Downers Grove, Illinois) 2022.

Atonement – if it is a doctrine about sinners reconciling with God, why does it bring so much controversy among God’s people?

Jackson W. (pseudonym) explores the issue and importance of atonement in this book by looking through a renewed attention to biblical evidence. In recent history, we have used a number of symbolism and theories for us to understand the impact of atonement on our salvation. Although they are helpful, they inadvertently create some tensions among churches and Christians. Phrases such as penal substitution and Christus Victor are used to describe different aspects of atonement. Some embrace them, some reject them.

Has our understanding of cultural and historical context shaped our view on atonement?

Have these models overshadowed the biblical meaning of atonement? 

Jackson W. suggests we need to take a step back from our modern models or theories of atonement and look afresh at the Bible’s themes of sacrifice, purification, and sin-bearing.

Instead of looking at the individual models and theories of atonement and the Bible through those lenses, Jackson W. unpacks how biblical narrative uses several metaphors that help us understand what atonement is. 

This is done by approaching it in three stages: 

  1. Seeing atonement in biblical and cultural context
  2. Interpreting biblical metaphors of atonement, such as purification, sin-bearing, recompense or retribution, and punishment, and 
  3. Implications and applications of atonement as a whole.

This structure works well in unpacking the biblical context of atonement. I would say this structure and approach are the ones that make the book shine. Sure, the content is good and thought-provoking, but without a clear and well-defined structure and flow, this book could have been understood and received differently. This structure can be felt throughout the book. For example, Jackson W. helpfully differentiates what atonement achieves (recapitulation theory, Christus Victor) from how Christ affects atonement (ransom theory, satisfaction theory, penal substitution).

Another good thing about this book is how Jackson W. synthesises doctrines, culture, and historical understanding of those doctrines. 

“Theology involves synthesis.” On this note, he suggests “The fact that culture influences theology does not at all imply that all theology is mistaken. Rather, it simply means we purposely need to diversify our perspective. We must consistently look for blind spots and critically assess common conclusions.” 

These sentences capture Jackson’s heart for this book.

With such a big and important topic, there are a few points that I don’t agree with. But that is not what disappointed me with this book – I expect disagreement. One aspect of this book that I find discouraging is the fact that Jackson W. uses a pseudonym. I can understand his choice of not using his real name, but I find that reading someone’s work without knowing the real person is a bit unfair. At times it makes his arguments feel sterile and distanced. It is as if, he could write almost anything without having to deal with the pushback. In other words, I can feel a lack of accountability in some of his arguments. Sometimes it feels like reading an unanimous post on a blog, rather than a well-thought-out book. Which is a shame when covering such an important topic.

However, I don’t see too many points that I disagree with that distract me from good arguments. If only he uses his real name, his argument would carry more weight.

While the topic and the content are theologically heavy, the language and the jargons are not. If you have read introductory books on atonement models and theories, you should be able to pick up this book and follow the argument. The book is well-written and targeted at the non-scholars in all of us. If you like to explore deeper the doctrine of atonement more and love to read the bible in context, you would enjoy this book.

In summary, this is a well-structured and well-written book on a topic as old as the cross. Would there be things that you disagree with? Absolutely. Would your understanding of atonement be enriched and expanded? Yes. Are there shortcomings to this book? Of course. But I would recommend this book if you teach or preach regularly in whatever setting you are in. This book will refresh, challenge, and excite you again on the work of Christ that is so central to our faith.

The Cross in Context is scheduled to be released on 22 November 2022 by IVP Academic.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press (IVP) for sending me an advance copy for the purpose of this review.

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