Thursday, May 23, 2013

"The Cross of Christ" by John Stott: A Review

There are some doctrines every Christian should cherish, study, and rejoice in. The cross of Christ is one of them. There are some books most Christians and every pastor should read. The late John Stott's The Cross of Christ is one of them. I have been told and now concur that this is one of the best and most important books on the cross of Jesus Christ and how we are to understand it.

Stott opens the book asking a simple, yet important, question. In search of a symbol, and every movement and religion has one, why did Christianity settle on the cross? There were, after all, multiple options; the ichthus, empty tomb, Noah's Ark, creation, the manger, etc. Yet at the end of the day, the church chose a Roman cross - an instrument reserved for the worse of criminals - as their symbol. The reason is simple: their is no Christianity without the cross. Their is no gospel without the cross.

The book is broken down into four parts, but it is parts 2 and 3 that get the most press and rightfully so. It is here that Stott the theologian does his best work. Stott seeks to unravel what the cross means and why it was necessary. Stott is an ardent defender of penal substitutionary atonement. To defend this thesis, the writer slowly walks the reader through some of the dominant atonement theories in history and argues that the atonement must be one of substitution and satisfaction. Thus Anselm was on to something with his satisfaction theory (with emphasis on God's honor), but falls just short. The cross satisfies God, but it does so as God in Christ stands as our substitute. Propitiation is made.

But to suggest that this book is just a good defense of penal substitution (as Tony Jones does on the back cover) is to fail to appreciate what Stott does. Stott defends in great detail penal substitution, but the atonement is not limited to that. The current debate over the atonement is really missing this point. Those who rightly affirm penal substitution are quick to reject any and all other theories. The same is true on the other side. Those who deny penal substitution as the root purpose of the atonement usually reject it outright. Stott shows, as I have argued before, that the cross does more and is more than this.

Think of the atonement as a rope with three strands each being important. Though penal substitution is the key purpose of the atonement, other theories are just as valid and ought to be embraced. These include Christus Victor and Christus Exemplar. Stott dedicates an entire chapter to these other two theories but clarifies what the Bible actually says about them. His chapter on victory is very good. His chapter on the cross as God's revelation (Christus Exemplar) rightly rejects Abelard's moral influence theory but does not deny that Scripture affirms that we are to look to the cross and follow Christ's example there.

With all that is great about this book, there were a few things that are worth mentioning that are unfortunate. First, Stott makes a brief comment regarding creation. He notes that the fossil record indicates that predation and death existed in the animal kingdom before the creation of man (67). He then adds that God apparently had a different plan for humans. I am sympathetic toward old earth creationism (though I still remain a young earth creationist), but Stott fails to consider the implications of OEC. He says nothing regarding original sin, the historic Adam, the interpretation of Genesis, etc. in light of an old earth creationism conviction. Instead, we are to just assume that the earth is old without any theological qualms as a result.

Secondly, chapter 10 on the cross and community was a little weak. I feel that Stott really missed a great opportunity to emphasize the church. This is not to suggest that Stott undermines or ignores the importance of the church in the book, but that this would have been a great opportunity to emphasize it. Each stage of redemption - creation, fall, the passion, and consummation - deals with three aspects: the individual, the community, and the cosmos.  God establishes all three in creation, the fall distorts all three through, and cross redeems all three, and the eschaton renews all three. Thus when speaking of the cross and its work of redemption, it is imperative to highlight the church.

Finally, in his chapter on suffering, Stott heavily defends the passibility of God. I for one am stuck on the issue. Is God passible or impassible? Does God suffer or not? Stott gives an emphatic yes and I am not sure Scripture is clear enough on the subject and I'm not sure how Stott presents it is the best. For example, Stott uses the story of the execution of an innocent Jewish boy hung by the Nazis. "Where was God," the onlookers ask. "There hanging" comes the answer. The implication, then, is that God suffers with us. Let me say that I am not necessarily against passibility, however it is a difficult philosophical and theological issue. Stott uses it as a key answer to suffering and I'm not sure Scripture takes us there so clearly.

With all of this said, there is no doubt that this is an excellent book and portions of it will be featured on this site moving forward. His chapter highlighting the four images of the cross, including redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, etc., is an excellent way to explain the effects of the cross and I would recommend the reader to return to it often. Overall, buy this book, read this book, and love this book.

For more on Stott and Penal Substitution:
Its Not Just a Theory: Stott on Penal Substitution
John Stott on the The Human Enigma

Theology Thursday | Does McLaren Reject Penal Substitution: A Review of the Evidence
Brian McLaren and Emergent Soteriology:  From Cultural Accommodation to the Social Gospel
God as Butcher: McLaren on Penal Substitution  
The Postmodern Social Gospel:  Brian McLaren Proves My Point  
Brian McLaren and Emergent Soteriology:  From Cultural Accommodation to the Social Gospel
Does McLaren Reject Penal Substitution:  A Look at the Evidence
"Death by Love" by Mark Driscoll 
"Death by Love" by Mark Driscoll
"In My Place, Condemned He Stood"
"It is Well"
"Precious Blood": A Review

For more on the atonement:
Allison: A History of the Doctrine of the Atonement
"Salvation Brings Imitation": Piper on Christus Exemplar
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 1 - Introduction
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 2 - Christus Exemplar and the doctrine of sin and depravity
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 3 - The History of Christus Exemplar
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 4 - Christus Exemplar and Humility
Sanctification Demands It: The Necessity of the Atonement

"The Cup & the Crucifixion" Spoken Word

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