Stephen Finlan’s Options on Atonement in Christian Thought is a short read: a mere 132 pages to cover a really big topic. Though it seems most Christians have adopted some form of the atonement that infers that “Jesus died to save me from my sins,” few ask why such a sacrifice was necessary. The violence of his death is deemed justified and even a model for human actions.
But this is the value of Finlan’s text: he carefully examines the biblical metaphors used to describe the beneficial effects of Jesus’ crucifixion. Finlan’s claim, that the traditional idea of “Christ dying for our sins” was not an emphasis of the Jerusalem church may be apparent to some but probably quite surprising to most (4). It is fascinating, indeed, to note how Paul (and people who wrote in his name) have dictated the discussion of atonement over the centuries. Yet Finlan does not simply dismiss the Pauline metaphors of atonement but refuses to take them as literal descriptions of how an angry and violent God has demanded a violent death of Jesus to show “love” for the world or to satisfy God’s “honor” or “purity” (33).
The chapter entitled “After Paul” offers an excellent review of how various theologians like Ignatius, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin and others interpreted the atonement of Christ.
In his chapters on “Defenses of Atonement” and “Critiques of Atonement” Finlan examines how various scholars have sought to defend the traditional atonement theories dealing with this angry God before embarking on his own “Theory of Revelation and Evolution.” Finlan argues that in theology we are always dealing with a human understanding of God that is continually evolving (115). He does not claim that revelation itself is evolutionary but that as soon as a revelation is received it becomes “evolutionary, human, fallible—but it can still be very good” (121). The old leads to new, revolutionary insights!
Finlan’s investigation leads him to replace “God-fear” with “God-trust”; to replace Christianity’s long history of “damning” and “scapegoating” with “growing” in faith and trust; to look to the work of Jesus to make us one with God rather than to the action of an angry, wrathful, violent deity who must destroy and kill to bring about atonement with the Divine.
While scholarly, I found the book to be also quite pastoral and appropriate for congregational study. Finlan’s pastoral concern seems especially apparent when he discusses the role the violent atonement theories have played in justifying abusive family relations (46, 55-56) and their emphasis on the drama of the crucifixion that led to anti-Semitism (61-69). For Finlan, God did not demand the death of Jesus but God is a “director of human growth (127). The mature believer is expected then to “be reflective, responsible, and intelligent” and “trusting”, and it is “the church’s business” to proclaim this message and to promote these virtues. Studying this book would be a good place to start.
If you are asking, this brief book will start more great reading for you. Jesus doesn't explain the how of what we call the atonement. St. Paul developed several different metaphors in an attempt to explain for his time. Medieval theologians set the pattern for the Church since then. But the basic concepts on which all of these are built can be faulted today or at least recognized as limited by their nature as metaphors only. Finlan reviews the options, over the centuries and currently, concluding with his preferences.
Stephen Finlan is a researcher for the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (IVP) and teaches also New Testament at Drew University. His 2004 dissertation on Pauline theology focussed on atonement and gave birth to a less scholarly version, his book Problems With Atonement, 2005. The present book corresponds to that previous book, but is: - reorganised - updated, e.g. some references have been removed (such as the classical book by Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, 1968, a must-have by a Lutheran bishop who saw the problem...), a few more recent ones are added and discussed - improved regarding the argumentation - more appealing and confronting, making the reader more concerned.
So if you already own his book Problems With Atonement, you will not find here much more. However the subject is so important, that I find it really worth to have this update. The idea (promoted by Anselm) that Christ suffered as a substitute for humanity's crimes has been so extremely widespread by the Western reformation that many of us Westerners can't even see the huge problems it entails for Christianity. Is this justice, that an inocent person be punished instead of a criminal? Can the Christian God be so unjust? Does He even need such a sacrifice?
Finlan, drawing on cultural studies and biblical exegesis (started with his PhD research) debunks this Anselmian/ protestant belief. What about the Pauline soteriology? There are important answers such as : if the Christ-killers had known..., they would NOT have crucified Him (1 Cor 2:7-8), which can be found in the present little book, although not enough. This is why Finlan's just published book on Pauline theology is a very exciting complement, which I am ordering today...: The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition, 2008... Also from a different perspective, this fits very well with the established Lukan soteriology, as it removed an discrepancy between Luke and Paul. In this respect, another brand new work, also based on recent research is interesting: Il vous est né un Sauveur : La construction du sens sotériologique de la venue de Jésus en Luc-Actes (Labor et Fides, 2008) by Daniel Gerber (another brillant New Testament Professor, from the university of Strasburg) and which can be found on amazon.fr
Getting rid of an absurd idea is one thing, but then a question arise: what to think of Christ's life and suffering? Drawing on his authoritative mastering of the theology of the Early Church, Finlan shows the way: the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis, and for those who have not done it yet, the book of which he is a co-editor, Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, 2006, is a companion must-have (which covers also some recent appraisal of this very important doctrine of the Early church).
These books are very enlightening, I recommend them wholeheartedly. And if you are interested in something exciting about the Old Testament, I recommend Thomas Römer (who may be the most prominent Old Testament exegete nowadays)'s book So-called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction (2007), which makes the OT research results of the last decades accessible through an easy book in the English language.
I am a laymen interested in theology. In this book Finlan provides an informative critique of Christian atonement theories and their origins, and fairly examines and criticizes numerous modern treatments of the atonement theme. He does this, however, from a definite theological perspective, and the book really is an extended sermon (with the sermonizing evident in places). Finlan shows that atonement theories come in a variety of types but that all involve some elements of blood, violence, and bargaining as essential components of God's relationship to humanity, usually with Jesus caught somewhere in the middle. He also strongly argues that such elements cannot be part of any adequate modern understanding of the God-human relationship (and cites child abuse as one consequence so frequently that it becomes distracting).
Although not in any simple order, Finlan convincingly makes four distinct arguments, here simplified: 1, atonement theology is not found in the teaching of Jesus or in the gospels; 2, Jesus' teaching was based on the Old Testament ethical prophets; 3, atonement theology in the New Testament was the creation of Paul and the author of Hebrews, who in turn; 4, based their views on the Old Testament cultic, blood sacrificial religion of the Hebrew priests. To me, these well-made arguments point to an obvious far-reaching conclusion: there are two religious streams in the bible: an ethical stream (OT, "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God," NT, "The Great Commandment"); and a sacrificial stream (OT, "it is the blood that maketh atonement," NT "without the shedding of blood there is no remission"). Finlan's theology, however, will not let him consider this seemingly obvious conclusion, since he is committed to believing that there is just one single overarching biblical message into which all other strands must somehow be integrated (apparently so that continuity with orthodox Christian tradition will be maintained: he insists, for example that Israel was strictly monotheistic from earliest times, regardless of any evidence to the contrary).
Therefore, as many have done over the centuries and many still do today, Finlan chooses Paul over Jesus, and argues that Paul's atonement doctrines can be nuanced enough so as to permit us to believe that moral progress is being made in biblical religion because his (Finlan's) arguments are emasculating atonement theology. Such a conclusion may well be of interest to those who want to defend a diluted form of Christian "orthodoxy," and for those whose theological inclinations are toward Eastern rather than Western Christianity this work will be helpful. For someone with no such commitments, however, Finlan's book will prove interesting but also illustrative of the ways theological presuppositions can undermine the interpretation of historical documents.