Book Review: Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution

Gathercole Defending Substitution graphic

Gathercole, Simon. Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 128 pages. Paperback, $15.20.

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Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology)

Simon Gathercole serves as Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, as well as the Directory of Studies in Theology at Fitzwilliam College. In addition to his positions at the listed institutions, he is frequently called upon as a guest lecturer and speaker in numerous academic settings. Gathercole possesses degrees in Classics and Theology from Cambridge. To further his theological studies, Gathercole also studied at the University of Tübingen and the Jewish Theological Seminary. His areas of expertise revolve around Pauline studies and Christology. He has authored a variety of books and essays including The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary and The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.[1]

For Simon Gathercole, the substitutionary atonement of Christ is of the utmost importance. Understanding the importance of the topic provides insight to the reader concerning the background from which the author writes. While context is key, Gathercole also places great emphasis upon defining terms. Before venturing into the bulk of his defense for substitutionary atonement, the author thought it necessary to briefly outline an extensive definition. The substitutionary standpoint the author advocates is simply defined, “that when Christ died bearing our sins or guilt or punishment, he did so in our place and instead of us” (17). Another important note of information contained within the introduction is the author’s decision to draw a distinction, yet togetherness, between substitution, penalty, representation, propitiation, and satisfaction. Closing the introduction, Gathercole offers a brief synopsis of the common arguments against substitutionary atonement from some well-known thinkers and philosophers. While not extensive, this offers insight into some predominant thoughts against the doctrine as the author prepares to make his defense.

Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the work consists of three sections: Exegetical Challenges to Substitution, “Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3), and The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8). Addressing exegetical challenges to the viewpoint that Gathercole is proposing, he inspects three differing concepts that have been offered throughout the years. The approach he takes is helpful as he gives a summary of the position, followed by a evaluation of the perspective and an assessment of the issues. A primary aspect of the chapter involves what Gathercole refers to as “The Omission or Downplaying of ‘Sins’” (47). For the writer, the three perspectives he presents in regard to the atonement are guilty of “downplaying sins, that is, individual transgressions” (47). As Gathercole notes, the deficient views presented “neglect a crucial factor in Paul’s conception of the atonement, that is, that Paul sees Christ’s death as dealing with sins plural. Sins – individual infractions of the divine will – are frequently mentioned in Paul, and yet one finds them frequently marginalized in scholarship” (48). Gathercole employs a detailed chart mapping out the singular instances to sin in contrast to the plural instances within the writings of Paul. The plural use opposed to the singular use of “sins” holds tremendous importance for Gathercole. He suggests “to explicate the atonement overridingly in terms of victory over Sin as a power is one-sided” (50). He notes that Paul refers to the human plight in terms of sins, transgressions, and trespasses, and so it is no surprise to see reference to Christ’s death as dealing with these – even summarizing his gospel this way” (50).

In the next section of the work, the author’s purpose is to draw the reader’s attention to a Scriptural defense of substitution. Gathercole dominates the section by addressing First Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and reads it in light of the influence of Isaiah 53. Commenting upon the comparison of the two passages, Gathercole adds, “there is virtually a scholarly consensus now that Paul’s letters were influenced by Isaiah 53 in their depictions of Jesus’s atoning death” (64). Adding another chart to the work, Gathercole inserts another to examine the Greek word order of First Corinthains 15 and Isaiah 53. With the idea of “sins” being a driving force of his theological disposition, the author quickly explains the construction of hamartia, the word Paul interjects for “sins,” is used six times in the Greek translation of Isaiah 53. Noting that the Old Testament model, for which Isaiah would have been familiar, carries the connotation that “sins” lead to death. Building upon this idea, Gathercole begins to diverge into substitutionary atonement as seen in Isaiah 53 and supported by First Corinthians 15. In doing so, the author views the Old Testament understanding of a vicarious death, concluding “in the premonitions of Isaiah 53, there is precedent for the miraculous salvation of others taking place through God’s bringing the consequences of the sins of others onto an innocent individual. In this way, Christ dies both in consequence of the transgressions of others and in order to deal with those infractions of the divine will” (79).

The final portion of the work looks historically into the language that Paul uses in Romans 5 in regard to Christ dying on behalf of others. As Gathercole seeks to uncover, the language is not unique in nature, but is seemingly common within ancient Greek non-Christian literature. Upon review of differing English translations of Romans 5:6-8, Gathercole includes that the death of Christ Paul is alluding to “is death for another individual that is involved – dying for a (singular) righteous or good person” (90). With this being the case, Gathercole asserts a variety of Greek stories that use the same language to address a vicarious death. He points out views that involve love for one another and friendship; all leading to the idea of a person dying for another and what might constitute such an action. One may question Gathercole’s methods in seeking non-biblical Greek literature in order to enforce Paul’s writing in Romans. For Gathercole, the idea is not merely to draw comparisons to the ancient Greek literature, but to point out differences. In his conclusion drawn from the examination of the Greek writings and the writings of Paul, he notes, “in the case of Christ, however, his death does not conform to any existing philosophical norm. In Romans 5, Christ’s death creates a friendship where there had been enmity” (106). Within the Greek literature, one must have had an existing love and affection before justifying death for another individual. Whereas with Christ, he stood in the place of his enemies in order to make them friends.

Simon Gathercole has constructed a work that is rich theologically, biblically, and historically. His working propositions on substitutionary atonement are well written and defended, proving his work to be indicative of his convictions and ability to discern the Bible. From a biblical position, Gathercole’s focus is primarily upon the works of Paul in First Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, compared with the language of Isaiah 53 and the historical perspective of vicarious death through extra-biblical Greek literature. A major biblical insight regarding the language of Corinthians and Isaiah revolves around the idea of Jesus dying for “sins” (plural). Instituting a language chart of the Greek translation of Isaiah 53 and First Corinthians 15:3, the author enforces the point he is attempting to make in his defense of substitution. For Gathercole, to omit the notion that Christ died for “sin” and not “sins” removes a crucial aspect of the atonement. If atonement by way of substitution is the biblical model, it is imperative that a right understanding of “individual infractions” against a Holy God be rightly understood. The author offers helpful insight into the history of Israel, Isaiah’s understanding of atonement, and the similarities of Paul’s language as influenced by Isaiah’s in his understanding of substitutionary atonement.

A major strength of the book is its brevity and precision. While a theologian might compile volumes on the topic of the atonement, Gathercole has successfully pieced together a shorter, precise exploration of the substitution persepctive. Another great strength in addition to its brevity and precision involves its readability. While Gathercole has proven himself to be a distinguished theologian and professor, one of his purposes within the work is the building up of the church. An academician by trade, Gathercole still exhibits his love for the church and its building up through theological education. With this being the case, the book can serve both as a theological resource within academic circles, but also a source a practitioner might enjoy. If one were to point out a weakness of the book, one might be difficult to identify. However, for the sake of critique one weakness might be the lack of address of other primary theories of atonement. With the debate being so broad, multiple theories do exist. While Gathercole addresses three in the opening section of the work, the ones noted may not be universally known. In seeking to defend substitutionary atonement against other leading positions, he may have addressed the moral influence theory or the ransom theory, as these hold “more weight” within theological circles.

Given the nature and content of the work that Simon Gathercole has put forth in the realm of substitutionary atonement, it is one that cannot be looked over. As he asserts within the opening of the work, the atonement debate has been going on for quite some time and has had shifts in the theological understanding of the atonement within recent decades. Gathercole’s book Defending Substitution is a necessary resource for anyone desiring to expand his or her knowledge of the topic. In addition, it is written from an evangelical point of view, which allows it to be ready devotionally where other theological works may fall short. The Christian can read Gathercole’s work and become enamored by the glory of God and the magnitude of what took place on the cross of Christ. It is the recommendation of this review that Gathercole’s work be considered anytime a person is seeking further information and understanding in regard to the atonement of Christ.

[1] University of Cambridge, “Dr. Simon Gathercole,” accessed September 14, 2017, http://divinity.cam.ac.uk.

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