Andrew Purves. Exploring Christology and Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H.R. MacKintosh and T.F. Torrance. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
Andrew Purves teaches Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I wanted to read this book because my pastor at the Presbyterian Church that I attended in upstate New York and his wife heard Purves speak, and they were really impressed. After reading this book, I was impressed, too.
In Exploring Christology and Atonement, Purves explores the views of the atonement that were held by three Scottish theologians: John McLeod Campbell, H.R. MacKintosh, and T.F. Torrance. All three of these theologians were critical of the penal substitution model of the atonement, the idea that Jesus Christ through his death on the cross paid the death penalty that sinners deserve for their sins, dying in their place, appeasing God’s wrath, and bringing them forgiveness (or at least the option of forgiveness).
As I read Purves’ chapters about these thinkers, they did not seem to me to dismiss penal substitution thoroughly, for they did believe that Jesus Christ endured God’s judgment or absorbed God’s wrath on the cross. They were, however, opposed to limiting the atonement to that, as if the atonement were primarily a legal transaction. They were also critical of some of the baggage that has been associated with penal substitution, such as the idea that Jesus needed to die on the cross for God to love us or to reconcile himself to us. According to more than one of these thinkers, God does not need to be reconciled to us, for God loves us already; rather, we need to be reconciled to God.
Concepts that are explored in Purves’ book include the following: the relationship between the Father and the Son; union with Christ (which includes Christ’s attitudes towards sin on the cross); Christ’s repentance on behalf of sinners; how Christ’s incarnation binds God to God’s creation; the cross being an example of Christ’s faithfulness and righteousness, which believers can assume; how refusing to forgive others is rejecting God’s forgiveness and placing oneself outside of it; how Christ’s life on earth, not only his death, played a role in forgiveness and atonement; and how Israel plays a vicarious role in saving the nations in that, through her unbelief, God can save the Gentiles (Romans 9-11).
Some parts of this book were a worshipful experience in that they allowed me to appreciate the atonement as I have long understood it, as a Protestant (i.e., penal substitution, yet with an acknowledgment of other aspects). Other parts of the book opened my mind to new dimensions. While all of the book was good, it really came alive to me when Purves was discussing John McLeod Campbell’s criticism of many Christians for treating the Gospel as law, whereas Campbell supported greater assurance of God’s love and salvation for the believer.
My favorite passage in the book was on page 248, as Purves quotes H.R. MacKintosh: “They discover that to be Christians is not to repeat a creed, or to narrow life into a groove; but to have a strong, patient divine Leader, whom they can trust perfectly and love supremely, who is always drawing out in them their true nature and making them resolve to be true to it through the future…who imparts the forgiveness of sins and gives power to live in fellowship with God. Apart from this, his call would only mean a new despair. But his strength is made perfect in weakness.”
This is a deep, scholarly, and edifying book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.