Conservative Evangelicals have no problem agreeing that salvation comes through the atonement God effected by Jesus' dying and his resurrection. A debate has been raging however about how exactly Jesus' death was effective for us. This book gives a useful overview of the key issues.
In particular, some people question the doctrine that Jesus had to bear "punishment" at the hands of God. They say that his death, whilst necessary as a sort of ransom, and indeed substitutionary (dying in our place) - owed its effectiveness not to appeasing an angry God, but that there was some other, "deeper magic" at work (C S Lewis).
The debate came to the fore with Steve Chalke's controversial book "The Lost Message of Jesus" (2003). But Steve and his critics agree that the debate didn't start then. C S Lewis, in "Mere Christianity", had already written that he viewed Christ's death as helping man "out of a (fatal) hole" rather than involving any "punishment" as such.
The Evangelical Alliance convened the Symposium that has yielded this compilation because Steve Chalke's book seems to have brought matters to a head.
Twenty contributors explore the core theological issues from a variety of angles. This book is for those who think it is important to revisit key issues. Even Howard Marshall, presenting a paper that defends a moderated view of "penal substitution", says we can easily slip into faulty thinking about God's wrath: "Where are these evangelicals who say that God punished Christ? Name them! Where are the evangelicals who will repudiate this statement, written by John Calvin: 'We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him.' You will not find them among serious theologians, although I recognise that popular preachers may err in this respect... " (p 63)
If you find that statement even slightly shocking, or confusing, you should buy this book - and get your thinking cap on!
Interesting but as could be expected was totally one sided; taking no account whatsoever of either eastern or modern theology. As an attempt to justify the fundamentalist position it would convince those who hold that view but no one else.
Steve Chalke opened a can of worms with his book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' in 2003 when he cast doubt on the penal substitution theory of atonement and in July 2005 a symposium was held to discuss the issues. Various papers were given at the symposium and several of these are gathered together in this volume, some having been reworked. It's a collection of very different essays, some focusing strongly on exegesis of particular texts, others giving an overall view of the issues, several peppered with Greek and Hebrew text (which might cause problems for readers) and most assuming a fair knowledge of the overall theology of the atonement. Generally the papers are all erudite and well written with the obvious disadvantage of a fairly short space in which to discuss important issues.
Chapter 12 contained what I found the most helpful summary of the penal substitution theory along with its problems (although the writer, Oliver D Crisp, did not find these insurmountable). However the arrangement of the book felt so piecemeal that it was difficult to find much overall coherence. This book would serve better as something to dip into rather than read through (as suggested in the introduction).
Joel B Green pleads in his paper "...that we remind ourselves, often, that debates regarding the appropriateness of penal substitutionary atonement as an exposition of the saving message of the cross of Christ comprise an intramural conversation and not one that can serve to distinguish Christian believer from non-believer or even evangelical from non-evangelical." The very next essay by Garry Williams comments "I cannot see how those who disagree [with the penal subsitutionary view] can remain allied without placing unity above truths which are undeniably central to the Christian faith." In some ways this characterises the tone of this book - a handful of articles by those looking outside the traditional evangelical view of penal substitutionary atonement, interspersed with a far larger number of articles from those upholding the view and attempting to counter the arguments from the other side. Although generally couched in polite language the overall feel of this book was of people on either side of a divide shaking their fists at each others' inability to see the 'truth' of their position.
Derek Tidball's paper is the final one in the book and, as such, apparently provides a conclusion to all the debate (and comes down on the side of penal substitutionary atonement). This reader felt that many of the points made on both sides weren't answered by the opposing view and, as such, the book didn't particularly move the debate on. Tidball does, however, state "I do not believe that penal substitution atonement is the only legitimate interpretation of the cross, or that it says all that needs to be said about the cross"; it's just a shame, when reading this book, that few others seem to hold with this view and that the overall feeling is one of conflict and disagreement.
The theology of the atonement is contentious for those who think that the traditional(?) evangelical understanding omits people who are not 'born again'. This book helps to explain what evangelicals (traditional?) believe that the Bible says. I expect that most people who read this book, because the atonement is important to them, will find that it contains a wide enough spread of opinions to reinforce their own and contest the others.