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Book Release: Spectacular Atonement

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

The Cross of Christ in Africa

I am pleased to announce the release of my book, Spectacular Atonement: Envisioning the Cross of Christ in African Perspective (2023), published by Langham Publishing. The publisher has graciously allowed me to share the introduction with you, here it is:


The theology of the cross of Christ primarily involves atonement theology, and throughout this book I will discuss this theology in terms of penal substitution and the victorious Christ, sometimes called “Christus Victor.” I believe that they are two sides of the same coin, and both play a significant part in atonement theology. At the outset, I wish to make clear what I mean by both penal substitution and Christus Victor.

In penal substitution, “penal” refers to punishment, coming from the word “penalty,” and “substitution” is someone or something taking the place of another. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a person may take the punishment in the place of the guilty party, the one for whom the punishment was meant. In penal substitutionary atonement, Jesus suffers and dies on a cross, taking upon himself the sin of the world (1 Pet 2:24), the sin of each and every one of us, and suffers the punishment and wrath of God which was meant for us because of our sin and rebellion against God (Rom 3:10–26). Jesus stands in our place as if he were us, and suffers the consequences of our sin, so that we might never have to experience the eternal punishment that was meant for us (2 Cor 5:19–21).

The idea of penal substitution was, in one way or another, evident in the writings of the church fathers early in the church’s history, and it continued to develop. But it was really only at the time of the Reformation, under Martin Luther and John Calvin, that penal substitution was actually articulated, finding greater expression. The doctrine argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thereby satisfying the demands of justice so that God could justly forgive our sins, and so the substitutionary nature of Jesus’s death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

The term “Christus Victor,” on the other hand, refers to a Christian understanding of the atonement in which Christ’s death is the means by which the powers of evil, which held humankind under their power, were defeated. It is a view of the atonement that is also dated to the church fathers.

The Christus Victor theme is not as rational and systematic as is penal substitutionary atonement: rather, it is understood as a drama in the grand narrative of Scripture, whereby God through his Son triumphed over Satan and the evil spirits and defeated them, liberating humanity from the bondage of sin and death (Heb 2:14–15). Sometimes this is called a cosmic drama, a drama in which Jesus immersed himself in the experience of humanity. Here, Jesus shared in our struggles and sufferings, and ultimately overcame and defeated the power of evil through his atonement, by establishing his kingdom. Together with penal substitution, Martin Luther also taught the Christus Victor theme. In his Large Catechism he wrote, “He [Christ] has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.”[1]

In 1931 a Swedish theologian, Gustaf Aulén, wrote a famous little book titled Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. In his book he describes the central idea of the Christus Victor theme as God and his kingdom in a battle against the evil powers. These powers were on an all-out assault on humanity. The idea of atonement, Aulén argues, is that of a divine conflict and victory in which Christ the Victor fights and triumphs over the evil powers, those powers which hold humanity in bondage and inflict suffering. It is through Jesus Christ the Victor that God reconciles humanity and the world to himself. This battle is seen as a kind of cosmic battle and victory over the evil powers.[2]

While Gustaf Aulén popularized the Christus Victor theme in the twentieth century, today other theologians such as J. Denny Weaver, Gregory A. Boyd and N. T. Wright have emphasized and developed the Christus Victor theme, sometimes over and above penal substitution. The penal substitutionary view is often seen as too individualistic and unable to engage or address the problems of endless suffering and evil on a cosmic level. There have, therefore, been recent controversies on the issue of atonement. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann wrote a book, The Lost Message of Jesus, which criticized penal substitution, calling it “cosmic child abuse.”[3] This led to a London Symposium on the theology of atonement five years later,[4] as well as the publication of various other books in response by theologians who advocated penal substitution and wished to respond to the controversy. Among others, these included Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovery of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach, and In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of Atonement by J. I. Packer and Mark Dever.

Others have sought to find a combination of both penal substitution and the Christus Victor theme. In this book I argue that such a combination is evident throughout Scripture and most of church history, and perhaps most strikingly through Martin Luther’s work. Some remarkable more recent publications which advocate such a combination of the two themes include Hans Boersma’s book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement and Sinclair Ferguson’s article “Christus Victor et Propitiator: The Death of Christ, Substitute and Conqueror.” While I also advocate such a combination in the atonement, in this book we will look at it within an African perspective.

In the context of Christianity in Africa, the implications of such an atonement theology demonstrate that Christ’s atonement is more than capable of dealing with African concerns and interests, offering liberty and hope. Penal substitution and the Christus Victor theme fulfil a profound need in African culture and spirituality.

Africa is a profoundly diverse continent; and so I shall address general African concepts and beliefs that apply across a wide range of African people groups.

Professor James Nkansah-Obrembong has argued that African evangelicals have not made full use of their resources in an effort to develop a truly African theology.[5] Africa needs a theology that is grounded in both the Scriptures and the theology of the church, and is profoundly meaningful for the African people. It is my prayer that Spectacular Atonement may offer a positive contribution to “a truly African theology.”

The very nature of Christian theology requires that theology developed by African Christians should also take the teachings of the wider Christian community into consideration. As a Ghanaian Proverb says, “One head does not contain all the wisdom.” Nkansah-Obrembong has said that “theological ideas and theological formulation become more fruitful and relevant if they reflect the thought forms of the recipient’s culture,” and that much effort is needed to work towards a “comprehensive and systematic theology that is biblically and culturally relevant for the church in Africa.”[6] A truly African theology needs “to reformulate or reinterpret the one biblical, historical, Judeo-Christian message in the idioms of the African peoples in response to the issues and concerns confronting African believers in their historical contexts.”[7] In this book you will meet many African theologians whose writings are not as well known as they deserve to be. All of them have an important contribution to make towards an authentic African Christian theology. I have learned much from these African theologians, and I am sure you will too. I hope that by my introducing them to you, you will in your own time discover their theology and their writings.

Nevertheless, I believe that African Christians should also be exposed to a theology that is uniquely African. A theology that is their own.

[1] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, trans. F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia, 1921), 111. [2] See Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A. G. Herbert (1931; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003). [3] 3. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182–83, 191–92. [4] 4. See Derek Tidball, David Hilborn and Justin Thacker, eds., The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). [5] James Nkansah-Obrembong, “The Contemporary Theological Situation in Africa: An Overview,” Evangelical Review of Theology 31, no. 2 (2007): 140–50. [6] Nkansah-Obrembong, “Contemporary Theological Situation,” 140, 142–44, 149. [7] Nkansah-Obrembong, 140.


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