God the Peacemaker: Some Brief Reflections

Having given a summary of Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (InterVarsity Press, 2009), I’ll offer some reflections and another invitation to more interaction on a few of its themes and lines of argument.

On the whole, I think the book could serve as a reasonable introduction to the mosaic of biblical teaching on the atonement.  At the same time, I felt that, given the measure of specificity granted to the volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, it would have been good in some places to slow down and go for depth over breadth.  For example, chapter eight broaches a dizzying number of dimensions of the Christian life but could have concentrated on those more closely tied to living in light of the cross.

Cole helpfully endeavors to dispel rumors of conflict between divine wrath and divine mercy and between God the Father and God the Son in the atonement (particularly under its penal substitutionary aspect).  There’s nothing definitive or groundbreaking here, but I think it’s worth appreciating the inclusion of this material as it is calibrated to acquaint readers with the properly theological issues on the line in exploring the significance of Christ’s death.

Cole’s criticisms of ‘thin’ ways of describing theological descriptions of the atonement are in my mind well-founded (see esp. p. 127 n. 13, 235).  Even if talk of atonement ‘models’ isn’t meant to do so, it can give the impression that we are privileged to spin out new conceptions of the atonement merely on the basis of utility and ‘relevance’ (compare Sallie McFague’s Models of God).  I wonder if it also insinuates that we aren’t bound to an already-verbal presentation of the atonement in Scripture whose inner logic we unpack in theological reflection, the substance of which is enduringly binding for the church to the extent that it faithfully renders the instruction of the pertinent biblical texts.  Cole also provides some attempt at relating penal substitution to the Christus Victor motif, suggesting that the former is the means by which the latter is accomplished (p. 130, 183).  I would be curious to hear thoughts on penal substitution lying at the center of the atonement and serving as the power source of Christ’s victory over the powers.

On the negative side, as a cantankerous impassibilist, I have reservations about Cole’s approval of Moltmann’s insistence on including the suffering of the cross in God’s immanent life.  Cole muses that ‘Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ captures this important biblical truth when at the moment of Christ’s death a tear falls from heaven’ (p. 142).  It would be interesting to have a chance to ask Cole about harmonizing divine passibility with his subscription to divine simplicity (p. 36 n. 9).  Perhaps he’s written something on it and I’m not aware of it.

Any thoughts on these or other features of the book?

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3 thoughts on “God the Peacemaker: Some Brief Reflections

  1. Divine simplicity – the idea that God is “one,” basically, and that he is not like a person with attributes like goodness, but is say, “Goodness” itself – has often been criticized on many grounds. But if we tentatively accept it for purposes of discussion?

    Then it become difficult to present a coherent notion of many popular ideas of atonement. E.g.: if God is simply one, and has no “parts,” then how can Christ/God die, and yet leave God himself intact? If all parts of God are united in one, then wouldn’t the death of Christ also necessarily be … the death of God himself, too?

    This might to be sure, make partial sense, theologically: God dies, oldtime theology dies, say. In order to make room for Man, the “son of Man.” Though many might find this conclusion hard to accept.

    • One could begin with the atonement and infer that God is composed of parts or hold off on making conclusions about God’s being until more direct consideration of the divine essence. Or one can begin with the doctrine of God, posit that God is simple, and then work out an atonement theology (even a penal substitutionary atonement theology) that excludes anything implying a composite God.

      At any rate, I’m far from convinced that the atonement points toward a composite God. The problems you mentioned emerge only if one departs from the traditional account of the doctrine of the Trinity wherein the persons are modes of subsistence within the one divine essence and don’t compose the essence. Someone inclined toward social trinitarianism will have more work to do in clarifying whether the atonement in some sense splits God apart, to put it crudely.

  2. The idea that the Trinity is not really close to the essence of God would of course, be hard to defend in Biblical language – as a few critics of DS (Divine Simiplicity) famously note. Though, since I earlier defend the “one,” why don’t you begin by setting out your idea?

    That is, I take it: how can there be atonement, in any useful sense, within a Divine Simplicity framework.

    One simple objection that comes to my as-yet untutored mind (I never think much about this subject): how can it be said even, that Jesus “died”? Much less, gave his life for our sins. Since Jesus went to heaven, and therefore never died at all in any realistic – or essential – sense. If he did not die in any essential sense, then of what significance and reality, was his “death”? Was the “death” of Jesus ever more than a mere, superificial show?

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