What Am I Reading? Andrew Purves, “Exploring Christology & Atonement”

I’m sorry to say that I’m not familiar with Purves’s work, although I know that he thinks a lot about the intersection of pastoral ministry and systematic theology. So I was excited to read this book as much to become more familiar with its author as to learn about its subject matter. Purves is an engaging writer, and his deep personal concern for the Scottish Reformed tradition’s theology – exemplified here by John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance – comes through on every page. His goal in this work is to think alongside these figures about the intersection of Jesus Christ’s person and work, christology and atonement, as a way of sounding the depths of “the great and central mystery of Christian faith” which is “the central message of Christian proclamation” (9). To this end, his preface includes a ‘theological reflection’ on Colossians 1:15–20 as a way of setting the scene for this inquiry. There he speaks movingly of reconciliation as “restoration of peace and love that had been destroyed,” culminating in “a vast cosmic peace” (15). I also appreciated how Purves situated the theological task as baptismal (see esp. 17–19 and 33–34).

Andrew Purves, Exploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance (IVP Academic, 2015).*

As readers of DET are well aware, T. F. Torrance is not foreign to me. So I came to Purves’s book with the main outlines of the Scottish Reformed tradition that he explicates well established in my mind. But I appreciated seeing how a number of ideas that are often identified as “Torrencian” were actually creative developments of moves made by the earlier two figures. (One can get a sense of this working even farther back in this tradition by looking at Torrance’s book on Scottish theology.) It was Purves’s explication of McLeod Campbell that was most interesting to me. Below I highlight one particular passage that stood out to me from Purves’s discussion of McLeod Campbell. The primary point under consideration is McLeod Campbell’s claim – as Purves puts it – that “the cross, as a Jesus event, has to be seen also as a God event.” As usual, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

The death of Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, in the unity of his one personhood, is a human event in history – no ambiguity there. He died as we will die; it is death as deadly as our death. But the death of Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, in the unity of his one personhood, is also a God event – an event within the mystery of the Holy Trinity. In which case, we have to speak here of dying and death within God, for the Son of God died without ceasing to be God, though there must be no sense of divine death. Clearly and immediately we have hit a wall that we cannot get over; we are confronted by a mystery beyond understanding. We have to speak here of abandoning and abandonment within God, for the correspondence to the Son’s feeling of abandonment is the Father’s allowing the Son to die; and surely we say this with our hands clamped over our mouths, for this is a fearful thing of which we speak. We have to speak here of the Son’s commitment of his spirit to the Father and of the Father’s receipt of that spirit, for the union of love between the Father and the Son is not broken. We have to speak here not just of the terrible experience of the dying Jesus, but also of the terrible grief surely of the loving, sending, then waiting, Father. To speak otherwise would be to say that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, is not dying on the cross, that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, has not entered into our Godforsakenness, and that God, as the man Jesus, Son of the Father, has not descended into the hell of our sin-filled separation from God to reestablish us in communion with God. And to say these things would be to turn the gospel into what is not the gospel by refusing to see the cross of Jesus as a God event. The cross is saving because it is an event within the relations between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. (133–34)

Aside from the knotty issues directly involved in trying to think of Godforsakenness within the triune life, this movement of thought has consequences for how we conceive of the atonement. As Purves puts it shortly after where my quote above ended: “The cross is not where God’s justice is satisfied; it is where the Father’s love is revealed.” McLeod Campbell recasts thinking about the cross as satisfaction so that it becomes “satisfaction of the Father’s love as God’s Son” (158). A satisfaction theory of the atonement where it is God’s love rather than wrath that is satisfied? Now, that’s intriguing…



Anonymous said…
I'm interested in how he sees the knot of godforsakeness and ties it to atonement. Surely satisfying God's love, as the author puts it, has to deal with the death and descent of the son.
I may have to snag this....
Anonymous said…

How about a satisfaction theory of the atonement where God's love and God's wrath are both satisfied in his son's atoning death. For God so loved the world that God in the person of Christ became one of us to die for us [our sins] and reconcile us unto himself.

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