Adam J. Johnson. The Reconciling Wisdom of God: Reframing the Doctrine of the Atonement. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Adam J. Johnson has a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is an instructor of theology and Western classics at Biola University.
Johnson’s goal in The Reconciling Wisdom of God is to look at the atonement as an act of wisdom. Johnson observes that a number of evangelicals have looked at the atonement with a focus on justice: Christ satisfied God’s justice against sin by paying the penalty that sinners deserved. Johnson himself accepts penal substitution, but he maintains that looking at the atonement with a focus on wisdom can provide a richer view of the atonement.
What does focusing on wisdom in looking at the atonement mean, according to Johnson? Ultimately, it relates to the healing of the cosmos. As Johnson states on page 118, a wisdom-focused view of the atonement “affects not only our own status before God as individual sinners but takes into account the whole of creation, ranging from angels and ants to demons and the earth on which we walk.” Johnson interacts with the question of how Christ dying for humanity could have an impact on other aspects of God’s creation.
Johnson also maintains that the way that Christ died served the purposes of God’s wisdom. Johnson asks a very astute question. Remember when Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus were fleeing to Egypt to escape from Herod (Matthew 2). Suppose that Roman soldiers came, and the child Jesus was trampled by horses and died, only to rise again three days later. Could not that have paid the penalty for human sin? Yet, God did not go that route, and God had reasons for going the route that God did. Jesus lived as an adult and was an example of a holy life. Jesus bore human folly, and his death demonstrates God’s justice against sin while ennobling human beings.
Johnson also spends time on discussing the practical implications of seeing atonement as a work of wisdom. He talks about how Christians can show love to others even as they suffer in doing so. (In a footnote, Johnson denies that this means battered wives must stay with their abusive husbands.)
Johnson interacts with Christian thinkers. Johnson is critical of a model promulgated by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen, who posited three stages of the atonement in Christian history: the first held that the atonement delivered people from Satan, the second focused on the atonement as a satisfaction of God’s justice or honor, and the third emphasized that Christ’s act of self-sacrifice inspires onlookers and transforms them morally for the better. For Johnson, all of these are features of the atonement. Johnson is much more favorable in his interaction with the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards.
The book has positives. Johnson’s interaction with Christian thought made the book interesting, and Johnson also did well to address the question of how Christ dying for human beings had an impact on creation, not just human beings.
The book would have been better, however, had Johnson discussed more fully the significance of Christ’s death. Although Johnson says that we need a fuller perspective of the atonement, when he actually offers a reason that Christ died, he falls back on saying that it satisfied God’s justice. His more rounded look at the atonement seems to concern the effects of the atonement, not so much the atonement itself. Were there other reasons besides God’s justice that Christ died—-that Christ’s death was necessary? Johnson should have gone into more detail about that. His discussion of why Christ was crucified rather than dying as a child had the potential to be fruitful, but it could have been developed more. Although Johnson mentioned three models of the atonement, he should have engaged the ransom model more than he did, and perhaps included a discussion on Christus Victor.
Another potentially fruitful discussion in the book concerned God’s wisdom. Johnson relates wisdom to living well, and he notes that God, as a being sufficient in Godself, has all that God needs in Godself to live well. That is a valuable insight, but it was somewhat of a dead end. What does this have to do with wisdom and the atonement? Johnson’s point may be that God wants to include humans in God’s fellowship within the Trinity, but the connection between God’s inner wisdom and the atonement was thinly developed.
The book also could have been better organized, as it had somewhat of a scattered, meandering quality.
Johnson has written other books about the atonement, and perhaps what I wanted in this book is in those other books.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.