I had the great privilege of moderating a discussion at the Lanier Theological Library last week with a number of scholars from across the world. The keynote speaker for the weekend was Simon Gathercole of Cambridge, but also on the panel were Craig Evans (HBU, formerly of Acadia Divinity School), Graham Cole (TEDS), and David Moessner (TCU). There were two topics for the day determined in the main because Simon Gathercole had written recently on them. First, we spent time discussing claims about the badly named fragment published in 2012, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Second, we took up the thesis of Simon’s 2015 publication: Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker Academic).
Let me take up for now the latter topic.
Christians in general–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox–agree on a variety of things but one key thing is this: through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection of Jesus God had acted to reconcile the world to himself. Nearly all Christians agree with that.
What we don’t agree on and what the Bible does not clearly address is how: how does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus bring about this reconciliation, redemption, justification, adoption, etc., choose whatever metaphor or image you prefer. So, for centuries, theologians have developed various theories of atonement. There is the ransom theory, the recapitulation theory, the satisfaction theory, the moral influence theory, the Christus-Victor theology, and substitution theory.
Most evangelicals have cut their teeth on the substitution theory, and yet recently many scholars have begun to distance themselves from it. They argue that it is not biblical or not fair or else they say there are better ways to frame how the death and resurrection of Jesus come to play in our reality.
Professor Gathercole has written the book DEFENDING JUSTIFICATION to say that we cannot, indeed, should not, dismiss substitution from discussions of Pauline theology. Many scholars are talking about participation in Christ and Christ being our representative as better ways of understanding how the benefits of Christ come to people through the finished word of the Messiah. I don’t see Simon denying those ways of framing the discussion, but I do see him trying to rehabilitate the notion of substitutionary atonement.
Gathercole takes up a variety of Pauline texts including 1 Cor 15:3-8, Rom 3:21-26, among others. He argues convincingly that substitution is part and parcel of Paul’s thought on what scholars call the atonement. It is not the only word on it, however. As Mark Lanier himself pointed out, we cannot dismiss Paul’s notion that the death and resurrection of Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers that cause the masses to live nasty, short, and brutish lives.
This book began as the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia and is part of a series by Baker Academic edited by Dr. Craig Evans. It is well worth taking up and reading.
The video of the panel discussion will be available soon at http://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org
Many thanks to Charles Mickey, director of the library, and Mark Lanier, founder, for the opportunity.