Leithart on successful theories of atonement

I have just started reading Peter Leithart’s recent book, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission, which promises to be a fascinating exploration of one of Christianity’s most disputed areas of theology. I was motivated to read it in part by preaching on Good Friday and thinking about how to make sense of the atonement in my particular context, as well as by seeing other colleagues discuss the matter.

In laying out the structure of the book, Leithart concludes his introductory chapter with a list of ‘several criteria of a successful, comprehensible theory of the atonement’ (19). For him, an atonement theology must be:

  • Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a nominal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in a first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide an account of all human history. It has to be a theory of everything.
  • Levitical: A successful atonement theory treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfils Levitical ritual in historical events.
  • Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).
  • Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.
  • Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave an impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” (Lk 24.26). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of a history of sacrifice.
  • Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved (19-20).

If nothing else, Leithart knows how to entice his readers. The thoroughness of what he demands from an atonement theory is particularly striking, and I look forward to seeing how this develops as I continue reading.


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