Adam Johnson has already established himself as a leading theologian of the atonement, but in The Reconciling Wisdom of God he considers the atonement in light of God’s wisdom, rather than simply as an act of justice.
By studying the atonement through the lens of God’s infinite wisdom, Johnson is able to speak meaningfully across the lines between the various theories of the atonement. The Reconciling Wisdom of God genuinely reframes the debate around the atonement in terms of God’s wisdom, making it a vital contribution to this essential debate.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Adam Johnson’s new book:
The doctrine of the atonement is a matter of telling a story, or retelling God’s story. One can do it any number of ways. At its heart, the atonement is a story, a history; and as with all stories, this telling is an art.
Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish theologian, sought to move past the division he perceived between the rationalistic Lutheran orthodoxy and the liberal theology of his day. Aulén argued that we should return to the original or “classic” theory of Christ’s defeat of Satan. Building on a number of passages throughout the Bible, this view emphasizes the role of Satan in God’s fallen creation (Eph 2:2), the power he has over us (1 John 5:19), and the ways in which Christ came to defeat Satan, reestablishing us as the servants of God (Heb 2:14–15).
Aulén’s story caught the imagination of the church, and has proved to be of enduring value. Due in large part to Aulén’s influence, the defeat of Satan as one of the primary aspects of the work of Christ is now a staple feature of any work on the atonement, and is one of the storylines that receives the most creative energy from theologians of the atonement today. But Aulén’s telling of the story has its weaknesses, and unfortunately these have proved to be quite significant, precisely because his story was so compelling. The doctrine of the atonement throughout Scripture and the history of doctrine is far richer, far more complex and delightful than this simplistic story would suggest. While such an abridged story may suffice for bedtime, a far greater and more complex story is necessary to do justice to the drama in which we find ourselves.
The good news is that the doctrine of the atonement, much like Lady Philosophy in Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, lives still in all her undiminished vigor. The splendor of her clothes, however, is “obscured by a kind of film as of long neglect,” and her dress is “torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get.” The problem is not so much with the doctrine itself as it is with the paltry mindset we have brought on ourselves by listening to distorted and inadequate stories. Stronger medicine is needed: a better, truer, and more faithful story. And for this story we turn to Lady Wisdom, because telling the story of Christ’s work from the standpoint of divine wisdom offers us the best and fullest standpoint from which to appreciate the full height, depth, and breadth of this vast, masterful, and saving story of God’s work for us and for our salvation (Eph 3:18).
What we need is a standpoint from which to view the whole scene. This doesn’t mean that it is the best standpoint in an unqualified, objective sense. Only God can simultaneously appreciate every aspect and dimension of the saving work of Christ. But given our finite and limited grasp of this story—this event—the perspective from which we view it matters greatly. A watchtower may be the best point from which to survey a valley or keep an eye out for forest fires, but is a poor place from which to fish.
As with any story, the doctrine of the atonement has certain key elements that must be in place for the drama to emerge clearly, and for the portrayal of the resolution to be deep and compelling. In this case, given the scope of realities entailed in the work of Christ, it is vitally important to have a sufficiently large structure or framework from which to tell the story. We need the full picture, and this picture begins with the primary character in the story: the triune God. The reason for this is that in this case, the main character and the history as a whole are bound together. God is simultaneously the central actor, the source of the setting and every other character, the one around whom the whole drama revolves, and ultimately the one in and through whom the whole drama is resolved.
I will tell the story of the work of Christ from the standpoint of divine wisdom. As we will see, this standpoint more than any other opens our eyes to the full size and scope of the wondrous, epic story of the work of Jesus. More than any other, this account of the history of Jesus the Messiah of Israel gives us a sense of the whole doctrine; in turn it equips us to tell the story in ever new ways, from ever more perspectives, to the benefit and nourishment of the church.
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The Reconciling Word of God is now available in print and digital formats.