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.

Is The Father Of Jesus The God Of Muhammad?

Is The Father of Jesus The God of Muhammad

 

If you are anything like me, Islam is something that you have always somewhat known about,  but never put much effort into learning about. It seems that it has gained much more attention following the 9/11 attacks in which Radical Muslims high jacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and attempted another high jacking that was taken over by some brave passengers that ended up taking the plane down in an open field. Regardless, all the the passengers on the planes were killed, along with thousands of others that just so happened to be carrying on a regular day when the attacks took place.

With that being said, everyone knew what a Muslim was after these attacks, or at least everyone thought that they knew. It seemed the the most common understanding of a Muslim, at least from my perspective, was that they are people from the Middle East whose purpose in life and whose religion in focused only on murdering other people, specifically Americans. While there are some branches of Muslim’s that do see this is their primary goal within their religious practices, it is not the most popular form of Islam.

I had never really looked into, or studied, Islam until this past semester in which I took a class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary entitled, The Doctrine of God in Christianity and Islam. Within this class, I was given a very detailed history of the rise of Islam through Reza Aslan’s book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. This book gave a tremendous, and very detailed, account of the Islamic faith from the beginning until now. If you are really looking for a historical outlook at how this religion came about, I would definitely recommend this book. However, be prepared to spend lots of time reading it as it seems to leave out very few details.

But, one of the most helpful books that I read is Dr. Timothy George’s book Is The Father Of Jesus The God Of Muhammad: Understanding The Differences Between Christianity And Islam. It was very helpful because it dealt with various theological differences and similarities. Like I said, I was not 100% aware of the doctrine of Islam until I read this book and what I came to find out was quite startling to some degree, but also very helpful in another. I found this to be of tremendous importance as our world is seeing a rapid growth in the Islamic faith, yet so many Christians are foreign to their beliefs. I was convinced that if we are to be truly effective within the field of evangelism and apologetics, this is something that we all need to become accustomed to.

I do want to mention a few points of interests about the book and some of its strengths. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this post, you will have an idea of whether you want to read the book or not. I will say this about the book, if you are not much of a reader, this book will be your friend. It is a powerful punch within a limited amount of pages. At only 139 pages, George gives the reader enough information to grasp the shell of Islam as it pertains to Christianity and he doesn’t bog the reader down with information that may not be useful to them. It is as they say “a big thing in a small package.”

A good foundation to Islam begins with what most people that have had any exposure to the religion have heard about and this is Islam’s “Five Pillars.” As George opens his book, he sees the need to define what Islam is. This was helpful to me as I had somewhat of an understanding but had never had it laid out any type of detail. As a part of this, he lays out the Five Pillars of Islam which they base their entire faith around. These Five Pillars contain some things that Christians would say with the utmost of confidence, yet they would be saying it within an entirely different context. To begin with, Muslims believe in one true god. This is going to be something that every Bible believing Christian would say as well. This is a foundation to both Christianity and Islam as George points out. From what I gather, Muslims do seem to do a much better job at expressing their belief in their one true god much more than most Christians express their belief in the One True God.

The briefly give a run-down on the Five Pillars, the first is Shahada. Shadaha is a one-sentence confession that is the primary foundation for all of Islam, “I bear witness and testify that there is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Now one important factor within this statement is the idea of Muhammad being a prophet. To put this in similar terms with Christianity, Islam also believes that there were other prophets. Some of those prophets being Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (ha!). I was not aware of this until I began to study the religion. I knew about Abraham but when they started following the line that I read about within my Old Testament, that began to somewhat stun me.

The next pillar is the Salat. Christians can learn a lot from the Salat because it takes extreme devotion. Five times a day, before dawn, at noon, at mid-afternoon, after sunset, and again around midnight, The Muslim is required to bow down before god in the direction of Mecca (Mecca is the holy place for Muslims). This practice is takes place within the Islamic places of worship known as Mosque’s. Mosque is actually an Arabic word that means “place of prostration” or “house of prayer.” How long do we as Christians spend in prayer? That’s convicting.

Next, the Zakat. The Zakat is translated “poor tax” or “charity.” It is a giving of alms that is required by all Muslims. Tradition tells us that 2.5% of the Muslims annual income is to be given to Zakat. The Quran (9:60) mentions this as well and gives specific instruction of how this is to be used. Stewardship is something of great importance to Muslims and we as Christians operate in a similar fashion.

Sawm is the next pillar and is an annual fast that takes place during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar). The purpose of this fast is to demonstrate and cultivate discipline and self-control in hopes to put forth the idea and meaning of true submission to God and his will. Their desire is to worship god during this time and exercise their devotion to him through their fast. How many Christians do you know that fast? I know a lot of Christians in the Bible belt that definitely don’t look like they fast (too much fried chicken). We can definitely learn from this devotion.

Lastly, Hajj. Hajj is the final pillar and one of which that will mostly only happen once within the life of a Muslim, if at all. It is the final pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim is expected to make the journey to Mecca (their holy place) at some point in their lives. They are to do this without taking out a loan or any other sort of borrowed funds, but they are to save and use their own money. During the time of Ramadan, there will be millions of Muslims that travel to Mecca and take place in various worship festivities. If one was to see a video of this place during this time, I can promise you that it will blow your mind. I have seen a documentary about this and it truly blew my mind.

I know that I have made this entry way longer than anyone cares to read, but I wanted to give a brief overview of Islam. I did not mention much about how it is similar to Christianity, but I hope that you will grab a copy of this book and read it. There are some beliefs that are so close that it is scary, but there are others that are extremely far off. It will help you tremendously as you will encounter more and more Muslims as this religion is growing rapidly. Grab the book, read it, and let me know what you think. I will be more than willing to have discussion about this book or anything else as it pertains to pretty much anything.