The atonement is one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. In their insightful work Mapping Atonement: The Doctrine of Reconciliation in Christian History and Theology, William Witt and Joel Scandrett offer a historical and systematic introduction to the work of Christ.
The authors survey several influential models of the atonement from Christian history and offer a critique of each model’s strengths and weaknesses. Their perspective is broadly catholic and merely evangelical.
Witt and Scandrett suggest there are three challenges to rightly understanding the atonement.
The first is historical: there’s no ecumenical consensus on the work of Christ analogous to that of, say, the Trinity. The authors survey different atonement models, assuming all have something to contribute to a comprehensive atonement theology.
Second, they note that the New Testament’s language about the atonement is varied, metaphorical, and symbolic. Witt and Scandrett prefer integrated accounts of the atonement that avoid simplistic proof-texting or overreliance upon tight theological systems.
Last, they highlight the tension between (1) constitutive accounts that claim Christ brings about atonement through his unique work and (2) illustrative models that downplay the exclusivity of Christ’s saving actions. As evangelical Protestants who teach at Trinity School for Ministry, the authors affirm the necessity of constitutive models and reject the theological coherence of illustrative views.
Mapping Atonement examines eight historical views, each with one or two case studies:
1. The incarnational view, which emphasizes theosis, focuses on Irenaeus and Athanasius.
2. The Christus Victor view, which emphasizes Jesus’s victory over evil, surveys several church fathers and the noteworthy 20th-century proponent Gustaf Aulén.
3. The satisfaction view looks at Anselm.
4. The divine love view turns attention to both Abelard (no surprise) and John Wesley (an unexpected turn).
5. The fittingness view, arguably a variation of the satisfaction view, focuses on Thomas Aquinas.
6. The penal substitution view takes John Calvin and Charles Hodge as its representative theologians.
7. The moral example view engages with modernist Anglican theologian Hastings Rashdall.
8. The reconciliation view developed by Karl Barth closes out the historical survey. It discusses contemporary atonement debates, holding out Thomas Torrance as a recent role model for constructive orthodox atonement theology.
Discrete or Integrated Models?
The chapters are filled with insights that will challenge readers whose knowledge of the atonement is mostly limited to surveys from evangelical systematic theology textbooks and defenses of penal substitution.
One of Witt and Scandrett’s principal contentions is that atonement theology should be integrated, accounting for the richness of the biblical text and dialoguing with the best insights of historical theology. This leads to a kaleidoscopic or mosaic understanding of the atonement, more so than is common in the evangelical imagination.
The authors rightly demonstrate that many premodern theologians didn’t treat the incarnational, substitutionary, and victory views as fully discreet, isolated models as much as controlling motifs based on how particular theologians understood Scripture. They make a persuasive case that Abelard’s view was constitutive and thus closer to the views of Anselm and Aquinas in its understanding of the atonement’s objectivity than to the illustrative, purely subjective moral influence view associated with modern theological liberals such as Rashdall.
Many premodern theologians didn’t treat the incarnational, substitutionary, and victory views as fully discreet, isolated models.
Witt and Scandrett’s personal preferences for one model or theologian over others shine through at various points. The heroes of the book are Aquinas and Barth, each of whom offers what the authors believe to be robust, integrated accounts of the atonement. They emphasize the discontinuities between Anselm and Aquinas to such a degree that the latter isn’t closely identified with the satisfaction view when, arguably, Aquinas simply further develops that model.
Barth is portrayed as creatively avoiding the implied pitfalls of penal substitution, which, regrettably, the authors cannot commend without considerable throat-clearing, and the obvious pitfalls of moral influence, which they thankfully reject outright. Many evangelical theologians find Barth’s views of the atonement to be stimulating but also deficient at best and incoherent at worst. Curiously, the authors omit the governmental model from their survey entirely, even though it has loomed large at various points in post-Reformation and evangelical theology.
Overall, Mapping Atonement accomplishes its goals of providing a historical and theological survey and a critique of (most of) the major atonement models. The authors’ critically appreciative tone is commendable, and their analysis is perceptive.
However, many of us will wish the authors were less reticent to embrace penal substitution as the central motif of an integrated atonement theology. For those interested in the latter, it’s best to pair Mapping Atonement with Joshua McNall’s book The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan, 2019).