All theology is contextualized. This is an issue of our faith we don’t often acknowledge. To some this might sound shocking, perhaps even downright postmodern; it remains true regardless of how it sounds. All our theology is done from a certain context, under certain influences, alongside certain assumptions, presuppositions, and perspectives. Nowhere is this truer than in doctrines of the atonement. In his insightful work Atonement, Law, and Justice Adonis Vidu helps readers to see how historical and cultural contexts have shaped the doctrine of the atonement over the centuries. His book does more than just describe the historical trends, however, it helps us to see how our cultures shape our theologies.
The book is largely descriptive. Spanning the ages from the patristics to the postmoderns, Vidu catalogs the history of the doctrine of the atonement, noting most specifically the ways in which emerging ideas of law and justice influenced doctrinal form. It’s an interdisciplinary work, one that displays Vidu’s strength as a philosopher. He is able to talk intelligently not just about the theologians that span these areas, Augustine and Aquinas, but also the philosophers, such as Plato and Heidegger, and he can move seamlessly between them.
Vidu grounds the work in a particular assumption that governs his interdisciplinary approach: that our view of God inevitably shapes our view of the atonement. So he writes:
Atonement theology seeks to ascribe a particular action to God. To put it differently, it seeks to assign responsibility for a particular action.
This assigning of responsibility is “partly based on knowledge of the agent’s character” (xv). So our understanding of what God accomplishes in the cross of Christ is related to what we think about the character of God. So, Vidu prompts us to ask questions about God’s relationship to law and to justice. Throughout history as a culture’s understanding of law and God’s relationship to that law changed, there were also shifts in the doctrine of the atonement. So as you read Vidu’s summaries of the major ages of the history of philosophy you will read about shifts from retributive justice to reparative justice. Shifts from ontological grounds to subjective grounds. Shifts from an emphasis on divine justice to an emphasis on divine love. The author does a tremendous and very detailed job of helping readers to see how cultural changes have influenced theological understandings.
The natural response to such a reading as this is to be skeptical of the task of theology itself. If everything is so contextually bound, or contextually shaped how can we be sure of what is true about the doctrine of the atonement? Vidu helps us tremendously by pointing us afresh to the doctrine of the simplicity of God. The way to handle all the teachings of Scripture on the atonement, the way to understand all the various aspects of Christ’s work, and of God’s character displayed in the atonement is to remember this truth: God does not have attributes, he is attributes (xvi). To think of God as always existing in justice and in love, in the same way and to the same degree, allows us to see the full and Biblical picture of the atonement. God is neither more just nor more loving at the Cross. He is the same as he is always. We no longer have to develop conflicting and competing theologies of the atonement, but rather may see them as one. In many ways, Vidu presents us with a perspectival theology of the atonement rooted in the doctrine of divine simplicity.
The book is thick. Its six chapters and nearly 300 pages are composed of lengthy interactions with significant philosophical thought. Some readers may find the postmodernist philosophers in particular more accessible through Vidu, but it will not be a simple read for those less familiar with the history of philosophy. For those who can wade through the intersection of philosophy, law, and theology, this work will provide much insight. Vidu’s own contribution to the discussion is itself the most worthwhile chapter in the book. I suspect it will prompt many responses and much interaction in the future.
Theology is shaped by culture. Clinging to the orthodox doctrines of our forefathers, however, can help us to consider these cultural influences carefully. Adonis Vidu gives us some aid in considering both realities in this wonderful and erudite work on the atonement.