Book Plunge: Atonement and the Death of Christ

What do I think of William Lane Craig’s book published by Baylor University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

William Lane Craig is often said to be the #1 apologist alive today. I consider him a friend personally, and yet I honestly haven’t read many of his books at this point. It’s not because I am opposed to him in some way. It’s just that for whatever reason, I haven’t. When I got this book in the mail though, I figured I should see what it was like. Most of Craig’s works I know of have been apologetics works. While there is apologetics in this to a degree, this one is more theological.

I was also curious because I am a fan of N.T Wright and I couldn’t help but think of this being a response in part to his book on the atonement. Thus, I dove in. I will be giving a brief summary of what the book is about and then listing things I liked about it followed by areas that I had some questions about.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is the biblical data, which makes sense. When forming a doctrine from the Bible, the Bible is usually seen as a good place to go to. Craig actually begins in the Old Testament, which I also thought proper, and looks at topics like sacrifice and the suffering servant before proceeding to how this is fleshed out in the new.

From there, he goes to history. What do the Fathers of the church say about the atonement? What was said in the medieval period? What happened after the time of the Reformation?

Finally, we get into probably what is the most unusual part of the book, though interesting and helpful, and that is the philosophy of the atonement. In this, there is not only a look at the philosophy surrounding justice and mercy, but also around law courts. There are several instances of American law cited and questions of topics such as how do pardons work.

So for positives here, Craig is indeed very thorough. Most people would not think of including something like this last section in a book on the atonement, but Craig does. He also does include some words on the New Perspective on Paul. It’s food for thought, but at this point, I am not ready to say the NPP doesn’t work.

On page 206, there is a wonderful paragraph on the necessity of the crucifixion and the resurrection. This helps show the connection between God dealing out justice and God being merciful on us. There is too little of this in Christian thinking today in that we don’t see the difference the resurrection makes beyond “Christianity is true.”

As I said earlier, I appreciate Craig going to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is where our faith begins and too often we dispense of it. Most Christians I meet who are biblical scholars are New Testament scholars. Nothing wrong with being one, but we need specialists in the Old Testament as well.

I also did appreciate the final section. It was interesting looking at the atonement through the eyes of jurisprudence and seeing how modern notions of law can help us see the way the doctrine works. I also appreciate the philosophical objections being dealt with such as penal substitution being immoral.

However, there are some points I wish to raise that I would like to see addressed.

First, when we get to the New Testament data, I think there is an overemphasis on Paul. I am not opposed to Paul, but when you look in the references, you will find more references to Romans than you will to all the Gospels combined. While I do not consider it Pauline, at least exclusively, the same applies to Hebrews as well. On this point, I think Wright does come out ahead since he does spend more time in the Gospels with the direct words of Jesus.

On p. 167, Craig says it seems odd that someone can be forgiven for their sins and punished for their sins. It does, but I immediately remembered King David’s first son with Bathsheba. David was explicitly said he was forgiven, but he was also told immediately that the child born to him would die. It looks like then that David was forgiven and still punished. I would like to see this fleshed out.

I would have liked to have seen more interaction with N.T. Wright. Wright is the most prolific writer who has put out something on the doctrine and while he was cited at times, I would have liked to have seen an extensive interaction with him.

Finally, I thought the discussions of modern law were interesting, but I kept being struck by a concern in that. If we were in England, would we see English law? Would we see German law in Germany? American law is the category we think in, but does it follow that it’s applicable to the biblical doctrine?

I would have liked to have seen interaction with law in the world of Jesus, such as the law of Caesar or the law of the Sanhedrin. How did justice work in those courts? How did Caesar dole out justice and mercy both? Could Caesar give a pardon and how would that work? After all, these are the categories the biblical world was set in. I am not saying that there is no correspondence to modern law, but I can be skeptical. In a future work, I would prefer to see law in the ancient world look at.

That being said, Craig’s work is a great defense of penal substitution in particular, but I think also rightly recognizing there are some elements of other atonement theories. It is quite likely one will not cover everything. Those wanting a good resource on the doctrine of the atonement owe it to themselves to read Craig’s book.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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