Essay / Theology

Review of Atonement Theories: A Way Through the Maze, by Ben Pugh

Maze image

Pugh, Ben. Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze. Eugene: Cascade, 2014.

Theology books serve different purposes: some offer cutting edge developments, others popularize such works. Some summarize the state of research, while others offer a critical and prophetic word. Ben Pugh’s Atonement Theories: A Way Through the Maze fills an interesting niche, offering an extended annotated bibliography of the doctrine of the atonement, an “encyclopedia of the atonement,” as Pugh calls it (p. xi).

For instance, when covering Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Pugh spends a handful of pages summarizing (or glancing at) Anselm’s argument, and more than twice that amount canvasing historical and theological treatments of Anselm’s argument and context. In its own way, this is very helpful—not for understanding Anselm himself (Pugh touches on the theology of ancient authors only briefly), but for appreciating the ways in which modern and contemporary theologians have interacted with the thought of these major figures.

Pugh continues this annotated bibliography approach with current trends, offering a valuable birds-eye view of 20th and 21st century approaches. Though readers looking for substantial interaction, critique or development will need to look elsewhere (guided, no doubt, by the sources Pugh cites), this quick overview is helpful.

My own preference is for primary sources from the history of doctrine (nothing beats reading Augustine, Athanasius, Schleiermacher and others, if you really want to dive into a doctrine), or contemporary texts which seek to offer constructive developments of doctrine. That said, Pugh’s book serves as a companion to such works for anyone looking for a quick and accessible sense of different contemporary trends. The chief danger of the book is that is simultaneously too brief to guide the more advanced reader in substantial interaction with the represented theological perspectives, and too lacking in theological analysis to give the novice the tools they need to find “a way through the maze.” Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would have been: “A Quick Sketch of the Maze.”

Beyond that cursory interaction with the book, here a few more points of interest:

  1. I am concerned that Pugh relies too much on modern categories for interpreting classical texts. An example of this is his pervasive use of “theory” to describe a theologian’s work on the atonement (such as: “Irenaeus’ theory of the atonement”). While this may seem innocent enough, “theory” language to describe one’s own work or that of others is a modern development, and to my knowledge theologians prior to the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t do this. This matters a great deal, for pre-Enlightenment theologians didn’t think so much in terms of “a theory” so much as offering expansive and fitting accounts of the work of Christ. Theory language pushes the reader toward one-dimensional accounts of others that focus on the uniqueness of a theologian’s perspective, and away from comprehensive accounts of their thought—a grave interpretative consequence.
  2. Throughout the book Pugh explores how different accounts of the atonement relate to contemporary questions and needs. For instance, he relates Luther to addiction, and Anselm to the topic of financial indebtedness. I found this to be interesting, promising and a great model for integration of theology and life.
  3. The treatment of Karl Barth and those he influenced was mind-bogglingly brief to the point of being singularly unhelpful. While brevity has its purposes, at a certain point it becomes so extreme as to defy usefulness. That Pugh would locate Barth (and Jüngel, Rahner, von Bolthasar and Moltmann) under the category of “Subjective” theories of the atonement was just one aspect of this confusing approach.
  4. Probably the most helpful and interesting section of the book for my taste was the brief account of the relationship between the atonement and the Holy Spirit (pp. 144-52). This is one of the most neglected aspects of the doctrine today, and I hope Pugh’s readers will follow up his sources, seeking to develop this aspect of the doctrine.
  5. Pugh’s “initial deductions,” which warrant the subtitle of the book, consist of positing a range within theories from those which are a) truly theological (focusing on God), b) anthropological, and c) those which stand between: “right in the middle we would need to place those theories that are truly Christological” (p. 162). I found this way of breaking down the material unhelpful for two reasons (not to mention that it was so brief there was not space to fill out its meaning). First, nearly all the theologians Pugh works with are far more well-rounded than his typology allows. And second, few if any of them would want suggest that one could ultimately distinguish theological, Christological and anthropological theories of the atonement, except for those that are gravely flawed and inadequate. Ultimately, we will need to look in other directions for helpful ways to organize accounts of the atonement.
  6. Pugh’s concluding note is without doubt spot-on: “If Christ himself is kept at the center then there is freedom to accommodate freely to,” or, I might say, interact freely with, “the twists and turns of culture. Compared to other controlling options within atonement theory, his person is not easy to compromise especially in the wake of all the recent work done on thoroughly contextualizing him within first-century Palestine so that we do not mistake him for a white Western theologian” (p. 165).

In conclusion, I did not find Pugh’s book to be a way through the maze of atonement doctrine—but I did find it to be a helpful birds-eye view of that maze. As such it canvasses current trends and research, and more importantly, suggests some profitable paths within the maze that offer promise for further research. Those wanting robust introductions, surveys of the history of doctrine, or constructive development of the doctrine of the atonement will probably not be satisfied by this book, but they will find it to be a helpful and brief companion to such works.

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