Having identified several things that I find very helpful about this book, it is time to move on to the more critical task. To be fair to the book, though, we must keep in mind throughout that the intended audience and brevity of the work mean that the authors are necessarily limited in what they can accomplish. Nonetheless, there are a few critical points that I would like to make. In this post, I will focus on the first two.
First, in the introduction to the work, the authors present penal substitution as the core of the atonement, virtually equating ‘atonement’ with ‘penal substitution’, but they make no effort to establish that this is the case. Given that the rest of the book develops a whole range of other ways of viewing the atonement, they leave unanswered the question of whether one of these others might actually be the basic perspective from which the others arise. Or, might it not be the case that none of them is fundamental, but that they are equal and diverse witnesses to the beauty of the atonement? The authors may be correct in presenting penal substitution as fundamental, but they give us no reason for thinking so. This is particularly surprising given the strong criticisms that have recently been leveled against penal substitution and the authors’ own obvious appreciation of all the various aspects of the atonement.
A second concern is actually generated by the strengths I mentioned in my previous post. Although the authors present their book as an examination of the “twelve glorious sides” of the atonement, it really is more of an exercise in applying limited aspects of those twelve sides to particular situations. For example, the Christus Victor chapter focuses almost exclusively on the issue of individual demonization. This is very helpful for the particular situation they are addressing, but it falls far short of being an ‘examination’ of the Christus Victor idea in that it neglects other issues like victory over sin, death, more corporate/institutional aspects of the demonic, and other forms of oppression and bondage. So, rather than providing an examination of the Christus Victor view, the chapter serves much more as an exercise in applying one aspect of that view to a particular situation. Admittedly the authors go on to deal with sin and death in the following chapter on redemption, but that only exacerbates the problem by making it appear as though sin and death belong to the redemption metaphor and not to the victory metaphor, when in fact they belong to both. Indeed, each of the chapters likewise focuses on a rather narrow slice of their respective metaphors. As I mentioned, this actually serves the book’s purpose of being an exercise in atonement-thinking, but insofar as it explicitly presents itself as being an ‘examination’ of each metaphor, it runs the risk of conveying an overly truncated understanding of each metaphor.