Browsing your local Christian bookstore or favorite online bookseller quickly reveals the current trend of books on the gospel: What is the gospel? What’s wrong with the gospel? How do we share the gospel? Is the gospel really good news? These questions are being asked across theological spectrums.
Underlying much of the discussion on the gospel is a theology of the cross – “atonement theology.” Recent debate around atonement, including those within our Mennonite Brethren clan, has brought out the best – and sometimes the worst! – as inquiring minds delve into understanding the good news of the cross for our time. Such is the topic of Derek Flood’s book Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross.
Gospel rooted in restoration and healing
Flood wades right into the swirling waters of atonement debate, challenging those who place penal substitution theory at the centre of atonement theology. Contrary to the typical evangelical approach, Flood roots the gospel in restoration and healing. Wrath and judgment, then, are defined through the lens of Christ’s victory over sin, evil and death (Christus Victor model). Challenging a “worldly understanding of punitive justice,” Flood argues that “restorative justice is how God in Christ acts to heal the problem of punitive justice.”
Healing the Gospel is direct and to the point. Flood doesn’t waste ink making his case, both against penal substitution and in defining his alternative. The blend of exegetical and theological reflection engages a variety of voices within atonement theology, pushing the reader to consider how various atonement perspectives relate.
For Flood, to study atonement theology is as much an exercise in biblical exposition as it is in seeking theological consistency. Love and judgment, punishment and healing must be reconciled. As such, Flood suggests the Christus Victor model provides the “full scope of salvation” from which to understand restorative justice as representative of the depth and breadth of the cross.
Additionally, throughout the text, Flood offers implications for response in Christian life and faith – atonement theology is not merely an academic pursuit, but influences our whole lives as followers of Jesus in the world (e.g., the way of nonviolence).
Call for consistency engages competing perspectives
Overall, Flood offers a compelling case to focus on Christ’s restorative work on the cross. His full definition of sin as alienationand sickness coupled with an understanding of justice as “making things right” draws from the work of key evangelical theologians in pushing for a consideration of the breadth of atonement theology.
To the benefit of the engaged reader, Flood is theologically astute, demanding a consistency in atonement theology that will challenge readers from all sides of the debate. By reflecting on how certain categories help define and clarify one another (e.g., expiation and propitiation), the book engages oft-competing perspectives.
The reader can’t help but notice how atonement theology is a series of interconnected concepts, not isolated ideas with specific texts for support. To me, this push for consistency is the book’s greatest value. Even if one disagrees with Flood’s conclusions, his method of analysis forces a comprehensive consideration of atonement theology from all sides.
Unfortunately, Flood’s push for consistency isn’t always reflected in his own presentation, particularly in his description of penal substitution. While he provides some good reason for atonement theory to adopt a broader foundation than penal substitution, too often the book trades in caricatures of penal substitution that neglect the deep thought and equal desire for consistency within proponents of that model. Though Flood displays genuine respect for those who uphold penal substitution (e.g., J.I. Packer), he risks further divide in atonement debate when other views are misrepresented (e.g. penal substitution as a “mere legal acquittal” doesn’t address the implications of such an acquittal, which can include healing and restoration).
Additionally, the book’s brevity, while a strength in provoking thought and discussion, leaves certain topics requiring more attention (e.g., wrath, violence, the role of Holy Spirit).
Suffering servant model
The emphasis on following the way of Jesus the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) will no doubt resonate with evangelical Anabaptist readers. The subversive nature of the cross brings a prophetic voice to Christian living that reflects the Anabaptist desire for faithfulness to Jesus at all costs. And the repeated connection between theology and practice fits well our MB conviction of the Bible’s authority for faith and life.
While some familiarity with atonement theology will certainly help the reader engage the contents of the book, Flood’s accessible writing and attention to a practical theology make Healing the Gospel a relevant guide to life and faith. By no means comprehensive in addressing all aspects of atonement theology, Healing the Gospel thoughtfully provokes readers to address the complex nature in which our beliefs and actions display consistency. One may not agree with every nuance or critique, but Flood’s desire for theological consistency in biblical interpretation and faith is a goal to which we all should strive.
—David Warkentin is director of Praxis, a one-year discipleship program at Columbia Bible College.