Essay / Literature

Classic Texts on the Atonement

Every now and then someone asks me for a list of my favorite books on the doctrine of the atonement. This is my list of favorite classics, to be followed by a list of contemporary works.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation: for my money, this is the best intro text to the doctrine of the atonement ever written. If you get Athanasius, you’ll get the doctrine of the atonement.

jesus-crushing-serpentAnselm, Why God Became Man: this is probably the most important text on the atonement for the history of Western thought. While Anselm develops a unique theory of the atonement, he is often misunderstood and made to seem far more one-dimensional than he really is. I recommend that you read his “Meditation” on the incarnation along with Cur Deus Homo.

Thomas, Summa Theologica III.46-52: Thomas brings together the history of the doctrine before him in a comprehensive manner. Though brief and fast-paced, anything you find in the history before him will find its way into Thomas’ work.

Calvin, Institutes II.14-17: often thought to be the father of the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement, Calvin has a delightful, rich and devotional account of the work of Christ. I find his work on the atonement in the Apostles’ Creed, though brief, to be especially rich.

Edwards, The Wisdom of God Displayed in the Way of Salvation: this is my quirky addition to the list of classic atonement texts. This collection of sermons blows the doors open, showing us how big a doctrine this really is. Pay special attention to the way that “wisdom” shapes his view, as well as the role of the angels.

Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement: Campbell takes us deep into the world of Reformed theology, and offers some substantial correctives, rooted in the love of God, in direct confrontation with a certain account of predestination. This is a great read, in conjunction with T.F. Torrance’s essay on Campbell in his book on “Scottish Theology.”

Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1: while Athanasius gives us the best intro to the doctrine, this is my pick for the best text ever written on the doctrine. No other book will do a better job of presenting the foundation and scope of the doctrine, weaving it into the character and purposes of God.

Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: this book hones in on space between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Trinitarian foundation and implications of what it means for Christ to be dead. A profoundly creative theologian, Balthasar is a “must read.” For the brave, his Theo-Drama: Action takes you further into this line of thought.

Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection: My inclusion of this text is especially idiosyncratic, but for me this book was a paradigm changer, helping me rebuild the doctrine of the atonement around Christ’s resurrection, rather than around his death. A great text to read alongside this work is NT Wright’s book “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” which offers a tour-de-force of the New Testament material.

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