Adam J. Johnson. The Reconciling Wisdom of God: Reframing the Doctrine of the Atonement. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Adam J. Johnson has a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
and is an instructor of theology and Western classics at Biola
Johnson’s goal in The Reconciling Wisdom of God is to look
at the atonement as an act of wisdom. Johnson observes that a number of
evangelicals have looked at the atonement with a focus on justice:
Christ satisfied God’s justice against sin by paying the penalty that
sinners deserved. Johnson himself accepts penal substitution, but he
maintains that looking at the atonement with a focus on wisdom can
provide a richer view of the atonement.
What does focusing on wisdom in looking at the atonement mean,
according to Johnson? Ultimately, it relates to the healing of the
cosmos. As Johnson states on page 118, a wisdom-focused view of the
atonement “affects not only our own status before God as individual
sinners but takes into account the whole of creation, ranging from
angels and ants to demons and the earth on which we walk.” Johnson
interacts with the question of how Christ dying for humanity could have
an impact on other aspects of God’s creation.
Johnson also maintains that the way that Christ died served the
purposes of God’s wisdom. Johnson asks a very astute question.
Remember when Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus were fleeing to Egypt to
escape from Herod (Matthew 2). Suppose that Roman soldiers came, and
the child Jesus was trampled by horses and died, only to rise again
three days later. Could not that have paid the penalty for human sin?
Yet, God did not go that route, and God had reasons for going the route
that God did. Jesus lived as an adult and was an example of a holy
life. Jesus bore human folly, and his death demonstrates God’s justice
against sin while ennobling human beings.
Johnson also spends time on discussing the practical implications of
seeing atonement as a work of wisdom. He talks about how Christians can
show love to others even as they suffer in doing so. (In a footnote,
Johnson denies that this means battered wives must stay with their
Johnson interacts with Christian thinkers. Johnson is critical of a
model promulgated by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen, who posited
three stages of the atonement in Christian history: the first held that
the atonement delivered people from Satan, the second focused on the
atonement as a satisfaction of God’s justice or honor, and the third
emphasized that Christ’s act of self-sacrifice inspires onlookers and
transforms them morally for the better. For Johnson, all of these are
features of the atonement. Johnson is much more favorable in his
interaction with the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards.
The book has positives. Johnson’s interaction with Christian thought
made the book interesting, and Johnson also did well to address the
question of how Christ dying for human beings had an impact on creation,
not just human beings.
The book would have been better, however, had Johnson discussed more
fully the significance of Christ’s death. Although Johnson says that we
need a fuller perspective of the atonement, when he actually offers a
reason that Christ died, he falls back on saying that it satisfied God’s
justice. His more rounded look at the atonement seems to concern the
effects of the atonement, not so much the atonement itself. Were there
other reasons besides God’s justice that Christ died—-that Christ’s
death was necessary? Johnson should have gone into more detail about
that. His discussion of why Christ was crucified rather than dying as a
child had the potential to be fruitful, but it could have been
developed more. Although Johnson mentioned three models of the
atonement, he should have engaged the ransom model more than he did, and
perhaps included a discussion on Christus Victor.
Another potentially fruitful discussion in the book concerned God’s
wisdom. Johnson relates wisdom to living well, and he notes that God,
as a being sufficient in Godself, has all that God needs in Godself to
live well. That is a valuable insight, but it was somewhat of a dead
end. What does this have to do with wisdom and the atonement?
Johnson’s point may be that God wants to include humans in God’s
fellowship within the Trinity, but the connection between God’s inner
wisdom and the atonement was thinly developed.
The book also could have been better organized, as it had somewhat of a scattered, meandering quality.
Johnson has written other books about the atonement, and perhaps what I wanted in this book is in those other books.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.