Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ

Back in April, when I decided that it was time to return to blogging, I figured the best way to start was to reach for a book for review. My eyes traveled across my bookshelf and fell upon the word “atonement.” I’m sure this was due to the fact that we had just celebrated Easter. Even so, the minimalist cover and the theological nature of the book easily sucked me in, and I knew that this had to be the next book for the Heart Man Blog. This month’s book is Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ by Oliver Crisp, published by InterVarsity Press in February 2020. Crisp seeks to give his reader an understanding of one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. For as long as people have had faith in Jesus, they have argued about how it is that Jesus’ death actually means salvation for humanity.

From the beginning, the point of writing this book is made clear. Crisp writes in his introduction, “Often Christians do not have very clear ideas about key doctrines of the faith.” He keeps this focus throughout his work of writing about a very difficult topic. The book begins with a chapter designed to give a definition of what atonement is, as to give his audience a common place to start from. The rest of the book is arranged essentially in chronological order (from the patristic period to contemporary thought), though that does not seem like a fair characterization as many of the ideas expressed are not limited to a particular time. Finally, he ends the book with a chapter describing his own beliefs with a discussion on how taking the entire history of atonement theory and using a type of unionization may help the Church have a more unified vision on the saving work of Christ.

“…in recent times many theologians working on the atonement have become skeptical of the idea that one and only one account of the atonement is the right way to think of the matter…One concern is that there are multiple metaphors of atonement in Scripture, so that any attempt to provide a doctrine of the reconciling work of Christ must be able to take account of these different pictures.”

This book reminded me of a text that might be read in a scholarly setting. As this is from the academic side of IVP, I am not really surprised by this. However, this should not be off-putting for the average audience. As Crisp says in the beginning, it is important that all Christians have a basic understanding of this doctrine. He clearly has a focus to bring all aspects of this conversation to light. He does not limit the discussion to any one particular view or ideology, and even seems to insure that he touches on all major forms of Christian thought on the subject. The chapters allow for focused reading on one form of thought, as he not only describes the theory of atonement, but also helps you to understand the pros and cons of each topic. While, I feel, more could be done to make this more scholarly, I do believe that would betray the central message that all Christians need a better understanding of atonement.

“Our social context, location, and the church and community to which we belong shape our reading of and interaction with Scripture and the Christian tradition in profound ways. What we think about the nature of salvation will be formed by these influences even if we are not aware of it…”

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about atonement theory. It is a fantastic introduction to many ways of thought. It is easily accessible to people who already have some knowledge of theology, but it is certainly not a prerequisite to this book. I’m certain that it could easily be used as a textbook in a theology class as well, to stimulate theological conversations around atonement. Ultimately I am happy that this book is on my bookshelf, and I am curious if Crisp will be writing more of these books where he will introduce all of the various ways of thinking on a theological topic.

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