Book Review: Understanding The Atonement

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Book Review: Understanding The Atonement
Brother Matthew Trowell, Select Media (Toronto, 2011)

Writing a book for Christadelphians that contributes to an understanding of the doctrine of the atonement is a noble objective. It is an important subject. It should be at the forefront of our minds, as it relates to first principles that need to be readily understood. The recently published book, Understanding the Atonement, has received many endorsements.[1] However, we must follow our conscience and are therefore unable to commend this work to the readers of The Advocate. We neither wish to exaggerate the faults of the book nor excuse them. In the course of addressing the concerns to which the book gives rise, points of agreement with what is written in the book are not emphasized. While there are points of understanding that the author has right, the value of the book is seriously detracted by the points of doctrine that he has wrong. It is regrettable that a subject that is so sublime and lofty becomes a source of contention and gives rise to the need for correction.

The book might be characterized as providing more of an historical synopsis of Christadelphian views on the atonement, from the perspective of the Amended community, rather than a detailed scriptural exposition of the subject. As a result, the most notable contribution of the book is that it provides an outline of the understanding of the atonement as held by at least a significant portion of the Amended fellowship.[2] It therefore gives Unamended readers an opportunity to discern the differences in our understanding of the subject. The differences can then be compared to the word of God so that Bible students can determine which is true. In that respect, we believe that Brother Richard Pursell's book, The Untold Story, is a much more balanced and fair accounting of Christadelphian history on the subject. Understanding the Atonement references that work a number of times but does not appear to have carefully considered what it says. Understanding the Atonement also lacks the objectivity and commitment to fairness of that other work.

For example, Understanding the Atonement's approach to past controversies introduces bias and misrepresentation. Tens of thousands of words were written on the atonement, but the author selects a relatively small sample. Rarely was any context provided for these selected excerpts, without which, readers cannot see what specific teachings or situations led referenced authors to make their points. Furthermore, few readers have access to original sources to check whether the quotations and references in Understanding the Atonement give a fair and balanced view. This is particularly the case in the areas where the book clearly disagrees with earlier writers. Unfortunately, Understanding the Atonement relies on the approach of casting contrary views in the worst possible light. As an example, the work leaves the reader with the impression that the Unamended understanding is akin to the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin, and from there proceeds to explain that original sin led to the doctrines of infant baptism, immaculate conception and Mariolatry (p. 169).[3]

While the author often remarks on the simplicity of the subject matter, we did not find the book to be particularly clear or easy to read. For example, what Understanding the Atonement quotes with approval from the writings of others in one place seem to be contradicted or qualified by what the author himself writes in another. Likewise, in several places, the author passes over very crucial questions without sufficiently answering and explaining how each is addressed by his understanding. Examples include: (i) why the Lord Jesus needed to die a sacrificial death and (ii) why infants, who have not reached an age where they could commit sin, are subject to death and sometimes succumb to it. As an example of this kind of omission, the book lists what baptism changes us to, but gives inadequate attention to what it changes us from.

Summary of Differences

The following points are not intended to be an exhaustive list of every point of difference. Instead, these points convey the major areas where the author's understanding of the atonement differs from our own, and, in our view, from the teaching of the Bible. We have expressed the author's view with a page reference in regular type and our understanding following in italicized type.

  1. Describes as false the teaching that resurrection to judgment is tied to covenant relationship (p. 105). - Our understanding is that the argument the Lord Jesus used to silence the Sadducees concerned the revelation of God at the burning bush as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the argument recognized that these patriarchs were then dead but certain to rise again on account of God's everlasting covenant made with them (Luke 20:37-38). With respect to judgment, the writer to the Hebrews compares the severity of judgment under the new covenant with that under the old: "How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, Vengeance is mine; I will repay. And again, The Lord will judge his people" (Hebrews 10:29-30 ESV). The citation from the Old Testament, that the Lord will judge his people, shows that those who have entered into covenant with Him are in a different relation with regard to eternal judgment.

  2. The law of sin and death is the fixed principle within us being "a law in my members" (p. 36). - Our understanding is that the law of sin and death in Romans 8:2 is the same thing as Adamic condemnation in Romans 8:1 and 5:18, and that we are freed from it at baptism. Further, we believe that this understanding is clearly taught in both Statements of Faith (Clause VI), where the law of sin and death is described as "God's just and necessary law." That would be an unusual way to describe a "fixed principle." Does it not show clearly that those who framed the Statement of Faith understood the law of sin and death in the sense of a judicial sentence?

  3. The coats of skins were only a teaching lesson (p. 43-44, 51). - Our understanding is that the sacrifice, in shedding the blood of animals, was efficacious in prolonging the temporal life of Adam and Eve and it established the greater principle: that the sacrifice of Christ and the shedding of his precious blood (to which the animal sacrifice pointed) would be efficacious in the bestowal of life without end (Hebrews 10:14).

  4. The phrase "dying thou shalt die" has reference to a process leading to death (p. 27). - Our understanding is that the Hebrew grammar form, the infinitive absolute, is used to convey an act to bring about death by cutting off the sinner [4] (compare Genesis 2:17, 3:3-4 with 1 Kings 2:37).

  5. It was Christ's perfect obedience and voluntary submission to death that becomes the basis for our reconciliation to God (p. 58). - Our understanding is that our Lord's sacrificial offering was made acceptable to God on account of his perfect obedience, and that it is the shedding of his blood in sacrifice that is the basis for our reconciliation to God according to the principle of Hebrews 9:22.

  6. Christ was not holden of the grave on account of his sinlessness (p. 59). - Our understanding is that that he was not holden of the grave on account of God's everlasting covenant and, specifically, the oath that David's seed would sit on his throne (Acts 2:24; 30-31).

  7. Christ would not have been required to die on his own account - his death was necessary for the needs of the race, not his own (footnote, p. 62). (However, this statement appears to be inconsistent with what the author wrote on p. 57 in seeking to explain why our Lord had to die, "as one of Adam's race".) - Our understanding is that the Lord Jesus needed salvation from death as set out in Hebrews 5:7, and that he also obtained eternal redemption by his own offering (Hebrews 9:12).

  8. We are "in Adam" after we are baptized (p. 68) and remain "in Christ" only as long as we are walking in the light. The author qualifies the latter conclusion in footnote i on p. 77. He defines the terms "in Adam" and "in Christ," not as terms of constitution as they are used in the Scriptures, but as a physical term (in Adam) and a moral term (in Christ) (p. 108). - Our understanding is that the terms in Adam and in Christ are used in the Scriptures as contrasting terms of constitutional state or relationship (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), and that one cannot be in both at the same time any more than a woman can be married and unmarried at the same time (Romans 7:2-3).

  9. Does not acknowledge a federal connection to Adam (p. 165) - Our understanding is that the federal connection to Adam is emphasized repeatedly by our connection to one man's offence in Romans 5, which brought the reign of death, judgment, condemnation, and the constitutional state of being sinners.

  10. A knowledge of the gospel makes resurrection from the dead a certain thing (p. 77). - Our understanding is that coming under the terms of the everlasting covenant, in this dispensation through baptism, makes resurrection sure (Hebrews 13:20, 1 Corinthians 15:17-20).

  11. Physical nature does not need forgiving, covering or atoning (p. 139) - Our understanding is that human nature is a defiled thing in need of atonement (not in need of forgiveness) irrespective of personal transgression. In Colossians 2:12-13, the condition of nature called "the uncircumcision of our flesh" is given as one cause of two for our being dead that is addressed by baptism, the other cause being our trespasses.

  12. Denies any legal change in status from Adam to Christ at baptism (p. 168, point 9). - Our understanding is that the term "in Christ" is used in the Scriptures as a term of relationship granted by God at the time of baptism, not as a means of characterizing our physical nature, and the term "in Adam" is used consistently in contrast to it (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

  13. Rejects the imputation of Christ's "righteous works" to us at baptism (p. 168, point 7). - Our understanding is that the righteousness of Christ is put on as a covering at baptism, and thus the apostle describes Christ as being made righteousness unto us (1 Corinthians 1:30). The doctrine of the imputation of righteousness by faith is central to the exposition of the apostle in Romans 4, especially verses 20 to 25 where Abraham's example is extended to those who come into Christ.

  14. Contends that the interpretation of types are "building upon a very shaky foundation" (p. 157). - Our understanding is that certain types are expounded in the Scriptures and therefore are not "shaky," in that all Scripture as given by God is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, etc. Examples of important interpretation of types given under inspiration include the allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, and Abraham's paying tithes to Melchizedek as the basis for the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood in Hebrews 7.

  15. Lastly, there is a very serious omission in the book and that is that it does not address the great principle of the atonement expounded in Hebrews 9:15-17: "Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive." The vital point of the Bible, that the death of Christ in a sacrificial manner that involved the shedding of blood was essential to bringing into force the everlasting covenant, is not mentioned. Without that sacrificial offering, the covenant promise of the eternal inheritance was not ratified and neither Abraham nor any of his seed would be raised from the dead, as it is written, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (1 Corinthians 15:17-18).[5] That it is a vital part of the atonement is clearly shown in the charge that the Lord gave to the apostle Paul, that "they may receive (1) forgiveness of sins and (2) inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts 26:18).

If one were to summarize the central argument of the book, it would be called the argument of the false dichotomy: an attempt to cause the reader to accept a position by offering three alternatives while characterizing two of them as extreme and obviously faulty. Understanding the Atonement offers two positions that the author sets out as unsound extremes. The author then argues that the position for which he contends avoids the errors of both. The two extremes the book identifies are (1) Clean Flesh (Renunciationism) and (2) the teachings of Brothers Andrew and Williams. The book identifies the Central "Amended" teaching as the truth in the middle between these two extremes. Had the author pondered the historical sources with greater care, he may have realized that the particular variant of "Central Amended Teaching" for which he argues is much closer to certain features of the clean flesh position than he acknowledges.

The treatment of Romans 8:3 serves as a final example of the problems originating in doctrines espoused in Understanding the Atonement. In this section (p. 134-139), the book puts forward a long held Amended interpretation: that the scriptural statement that our Lord condemned sin in the flesh is a metonymy, "a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used in place of another thing associated with or suggested by it."[6] For example, an effect is put for a cause. A scriptural example occurs when the sons of the prophets exclaimed to Elisha that "there is death in the pot" (2 Kings 4:40). They meant that there were toxins from the wild gourds in the stew that, if consumed, would cause death. There was a very real substance in the pot that would cause death and it needed to be neutralized.

The Amended reliance on metonymy makes for a highly abstract argument in order to strike down the literal sense of sin in the flesh. Under the metonym logic, the phrase sin in the flesh is understood to express only the propensity to sin inherent in human nature. In other words, sin exists in a prospective sense in all flesh. However, this view suggests that because sin is not there in a real way (only potentially in the future), there is no need for an atonement to be offered. As a result, those relying on metonymy teach that atonement is required only for personal transgression. (This argument has been constructed to defend the view that the Lord Jesus did not need to offer his sacrifice on account of his own flesh nature.) Unamended expositors have held that this view is very close to "clean flesh", differing in acknowledging that the propensity to sin was present, but agreeing that human flesh-nature has no need for atonement or covering.

The irony is that the phrase in the flesh is used in the Scriptures always in reference to things that are literal or real and not in reference to things that are abstract or figurative. Examples include Paul's thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) and circumcision in the flesh (Ephesians 2:11). For this reason, we understand the phrase sin in the flesh to have reference to a condition of fallen nature that is real. It is not an abstract reference to what could be, but a real reference to what is. The issue then is whether that condition of nature called, in the sacred style, sin in the flesh, is one for which atonement is required. The scriptural answer is yes. There are many examples in the Scriptures where atoning sacrifices were offered in circumstances in which the offerer had committed no personal sin. The mother of our Lord offered sacrifice at his birth according to the Law (Luke 2:24). The ritual of circumcision, in which the flesh was cut off from an infant of eight days, is another example (Luke 2:21). To set aside this principle is to resist the testimony of the word of God.

The author expresses the view that understanding the phrase "sin in the flesh," in reference to the flesh as having sin-nature, makes it difficult to explain how God's righteousness was declared by the death of Christ (Romans 3:25). This objection might be urged with greater validity against his own view. If sin was only present prospectively or potentially, how could righteousness be declared in putting such an innocent one to death? But if sin-nature itself was cursed and in need of being cut off, under the sentence of death as a result of Adam's offence, then we believe it is possible to give a satisfying explanation of how the righteousness of God was declared in the death of His Son. Further, it enables us to understand how His grace was declared in the resurrection of His Son, in accepting his sacrifice on account of his perfect obedience to His will, not only as the basis for His own exaltation, but as the covering offered to all those sinners who come unto God through him.

We believe that references to the history of the atonement controversy among Christadelphians may have their place, if they are used to help better understand the atonement and discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error (1 John 4:6). However, the great focus of our study on this sublime subject, from which the greatest benefit will come, must always be the Scriptures themselves. May we be moved to engage in that study anew, and thereby, in the Scriptures find the fullness of the truth that is able to save and to unify.

James Farrar and Josh Vest

[1] This book is unusual for a Christadelphian publication in that it contains a number of endorsements by brethren in the UK, North America and Australia in the frontispiece and on the back cover. The book also received a favourable review in The Testimony magazine in July, 2012 which can be accessed on line at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/2012/07/carr.pdf. In referencing Unamended teaching covered in the book, the reviewer, Brother Reg Carr, makes the mistake of attributing to Brothers J. J. Andrew and Thomas Williams the teaching that we are guilty of Adam's sin. Brother Carr fails to distinguish between the position of a man coming under the curse, which is a legal judgment, and being guilty of a fault. He supposes, like Brother Trowell, that the former is equivalent to the latter. That it is not so is shown clearly in Galatians 3:13, where the apostle shows that the Lord was cursed by the Law in the manner of his death, though he was personally blameless for those circumstances. It was necessary, however, that he come under the curse of the Law in order that he might redeem his brethren under its curse (Galatians 4:4-5). The analogy to the curse of Adam is exact.

[2] In private conversation, Amended brethren in Ontario have indicated to one of the reviewers that they dissent from the teachings of the book. As it is not possible for us to know the extent of the dissent, it is wise for Unamended brethren to avoid making assumptions about what individual Amended brethren believe in the absence of firsthand knowledge.

[3] The page numbers referenced in this review are from the printed book edition.

[4] Of all the points in this list, we acknowledge that in this point alone the author's view is consistent with Brother Thomas' exposition in Elpis Israel (Birmingham 1970 edition, p. 67 to 69) and ours is not. Brother Thomas did not take into consideration the Hebrew grammar form, the infinitive absolute that is used in this Scripture. We urge readers to consider the following sections of Elpis Israel and determine for themselves if the things we believe and teach in our ecclesias are different from what is expounded there: p. 132 on the federal relationship to Adam and how that state is changed by baptism and p. 125-126 and p. 161-162 on the significance of the slaying of the lambs in the Garden.

[5] There is an acknowledgment, in point # 22 on p. 77, that at baptism a believer becomes an heir of the Kingdom according to the promise. It is also listed as the last of nine points on p. 70 concerning the purpose of baptism, where the author acknowledges a change in status and again on p. 163. This truth is not given any prominence in the book.

[6] Webster's