Despite much support, criticism (some of which could only be described as vitriolic attack rather than dialogue) and ongoing discussions, I’ve never opted to post anything about the fallout from the publication of The Lost Message of Jesus, especially the debate over the nature of the atonement. However, given the continued interest there seems to be, I thought I’d flag up the fact that the papers from the 2005 symposium have now been published under the title The Atonement Debate, and pass a couple of comments.
The first is to say how indebted I am to Derek Tidball for his kind words in the preface to the book – ‘The final session consisted of a panel discussion, which included Alan Mann, the co-author of The Lost Message of Jesus. Those present will remember it as a significant time of healing of divisions.’
While I fully appreciate the concerns some have in defending what they believe to be a biblically rigorous understanding of the atonement, what has pained me most is that a minority forgot that ultimately the cross is about reconciliation not division. Personally, though I have my own views regarding the atonement, I’ve tried to listen to all with an ongoing openness and humility, and respect the fact that the likes of Howard Marshall, Joel Green and Garry Williams are able to engage at a biblical and theological level that is beyond me, so what they have to say deserves to be heard and taken into account, both now and in the future, even if I don’t currently agree with all their views.
Secondly, I was disappointed to learn that due to an oversight, the Christus Victor theme does not have an in-depth focus within the book. Given that in some sense, though not overtly stated, this theory was behind much of the thinking in The Lost Message of Jesus, it’s an unfortunate omission. It also causes a significant imbalance within the discussion, especially when you consider the words of Hans Boersma in his majestic work, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: ‘There is a sense . . . in which the Christus Victor theme is the ultimate metaphor. Moral influence and penal representation are subordinate to Christus Victor inasmuch as they are the means toward an end,’ (p182).
Finally, I’d like to point out that despite my obvious involvement with this debate, I wasn’t asked to contribute to this volume, and neither have I contributed to the debate anywhere else other than the Q&A session at the symposium. I make this observation because much water has flown under the bridge since the 2003 publication of The Lost Message of Jesus. Much ink has been spilled by both scholars and bloggers, whereas my contribution remains a chapter I co-wrote with Steve Chalke for the original manuscript (see endnote). This is important as much assumption has been made as to my views regarding the atonement based upon subsequent articles that have been written by Steve Chalke and others under the general rubric – The Lost Message of Jesus Debate. Actually, it could well be argued that prior to any publications or statements that sought to clarify people’s positions, the whole issue was conflagrated on the basis of assumption. To prove my point, below are the considered words of Stephen Holmes written with some wisdom long after the initial fires had burnt down:
‘I recall exactly when I first read . . . The Lost Message of Jesus . . . a friend said with some relish that Chalke had criticised penal substitution . . . and that an argument was brewing. I bought a copy of the book and read it quickly on the train home. At the end I was puzzled – I couldn’t even begin to imagine what all the fuss was about. I liked the book (I still do); I agreed with most of it (I still do); and as far as I could see, it didn’t even mention penal substitution . . . What really excited people . . . was a single sentence on page 182: “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he hasn’t even committed.” Well, of course – whoever thought otherwise? If some people found their own accounts of penal substitution being criticised in that sentence, then, frankly, they ought to change their accounts of penal substitution . . . I think Chalke and Mann get the ultimate basis of atonement theology (the love of God), its shape (many metaphors rather than one), and its necessary outcome (service, mission and ‘attitude’) right. I want, then, to claim that penal substitution can be one helpful metaphor in this mix, rightly understood. Alan Mann actually accepted this, and that he had been criticising caricatures of the position.’ (aken from, Stephen Holmes’s book, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History).
Of course, ‘rightly understood’ is the active statement here, which is what’s really at the heart of this debate.
(Endnote: As is made clear in the manuscript, my book Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society shouldn’t be considered part of this debate as its origin was a post-grad thesis I wrote long before the Lost Message and so it doesn’t address the issues at hand).