Mediation and Peace: Alan Spence on Atonement theology

promise-of-preace.jpgSince we have been discussing atonement theology as of late, let me highlight a recent evangelical contribution that I found valuable: Alan Spence’s Promise of Peace(T&T Clark, 2006).

Spence contends for an overarching theory of atonement, or “master story” (20) which holds together Christ’s multifaceted work. Whereas some find the various atonement theories capable of working together (e.g. victor, mediator, and exemplar) Spence sees them as actually competing and “comparatively self-contained” theories. We need instead a unified theory of atonement that can encompass all the biblical imagery.

Which model does he find capable? In a consistent argument against N.T. Wright’s victory model, Spence maintains that the mediatorial model of salvation should be seen as the normative soteriological theory, one that “discloses most clearly the inner rationality of soteriological thought” and “incorporates many of the deepest insights of Christian reflection”(70). The “interpretive scheme” for this model is the classical doctrine of justification – not N.T. Wright’s version.

Spence gives considerable space toward demonstrating the deficiencies of the victory model, reinvigorated as of late by N.T. Wright (What St. Paul Really Said (Oxford, 1997); The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary and Reflection(Nashville, 2002)). He worries that by making allegiance to the person of Jesus and his commands central to the gospel, as Wright does, “mediatorial ideas such as enmity, guilt, reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy are almost wholly absent” (14). The concept of mediation, on the other hand, is sufficient to incorporate victory themes and summarize the gospel message more adequately.

Along these lines, the issue of peace drives Spence’s use of the doctrine of justification. Questioning the tendency to interpret atonement metaphors by their “religious relevance” he argues that the human condition of being under God’s judgment should provide the interpretive framework for the material (not a fashionable position lately). A well-developed doctrine of justification, then, incorporates and provides an “interpretative scheme” to integrate and evaluate other redemptive models. In contrast to N.T. Wright’s account of the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom is not so much authority or power but hope and peace to those who are unworthy of it.

The clarity of Spence’s prose and the succinctness of his arguments clearly make this a welcome addition, yet, its brevity (126 pages) leaves some questions unanswered. Spence deliberately sets the mediatorial view against N.T. Wright’s victory model but he could have better clarified how victory language and imagery– and moral influence language for that matter – fit within the mediatorial model he advocates. The attention he gives to this question is only passing (16-17, 114) and a more thorough account would only serve to strengthen his account. Also, considering the emphasis Spence places on the sacrificial death of Christ, the “lamb” which God provided (50-51), one might expect some engagement with the ongoing debate about divine violence and the proliferation of non-violent atonement theories (most recently, Stricken by God? (Eerdmans, 2007).

Quibbling aside, by expounding the subtle contours of the atonement Spence provides a lucidly written and carefully argued work that demonstrates both scholarly acumen and pastoral sensitivity. In his own words, Promise of Peace represents “an unfinished commentary” on the story of God’s reconciling actions ( 118 ) and considering the magnitude of God’s reconciling work in Christ “an unfinished commentary” is a worthy achievement for any theological effort on the subject.

For more comments, see Douglas Knight’s blog.

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