Monday, 3 October 2022

On the Atonement, by Oliver D. Crisp (Grove Doctrine D8)

Oliver D. Crisp, On the Atonement: Examining the Debates on Christ’s Reconciling Work. Grove Doctrine D8 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2022)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Many books have been published in recent years on the Christian doctrine of atonement, but Oliver Crisp’s Grove Book on the subject is unique insofar as it works as a short introduction not only to the different models of atonement, but also to his own approach to the topic as detailed in his Participation and Atonement: An Analytic and Constructive Account (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).

On the Atonement first of all looks at what the atonement is and in doing so distinguishes between doctrines, dogmas, motifs, models, theories, and mysteries. Crisp also makes a brief case for not dividing Christ’s person (who Christ is) from Christ’s work (what Christ does). The longest chapter offers brief commentaries on the main approaches to atonement—the moral exemplar view, the ransom notion, the sacrifice metaphor, the satisfaction motif, and penal substitution—and recognises current trends for ‘mashups’ and ‘kaleidoscopic’ accounts. Finally, Crisp outlines his own position:

I want to suggest that the atonement might be fruitfully thought of against [a] background Pauline participation motif as a vicarious, reparative and penitential act of soteriological representation—or what I shall call the representational account of atonement for short. This is a kind of mashup view that attempts to give a layered understanding of the nature of atonement, drawing in different historic motifs into one more complex conceptual picture. The central idea is that Christ is accountable for human sin as a human (though not a sinner), but not culpable for human sin, as per traditional accounts of penal substitution. He acts on behalf of fallen humanity who cannot help themselves to salvation. In this way, his work is vicarious. He repairs the breach between God and humanity in so doing. In this way, his work is reparative. And the work itself is from beginning to end a kind of penitential act. . . . He offers a kind of penitential act on behalf of fallen humanity in his perfect life and work, culminating in his crucifixion, which pays the penalty for human sin brought about by the curse of the fall. And finally, in this work he represents humanity being accountable for their sin. In this way, he is our representative. (pp. 18–19)

Crisp concludes the main part of his Grove Book with a welcome caution:

As with any human endeavour, our grip on the truth is often more fragile than we think. This is certainly true of the atonement. . . . So one takeaway from our discussion of the atonement might be this: to exercise care in what we say about Christ’s reconciling work, and to extend grace to others with whom we disagree on this topic. For we are all seeking to understand better the mysteries of faith with which we have been entrusted (Jude 1.3). (p. 21)

The book contains an appendix of further reading, with entries divided into categories of ‘Introductory’, ‘Intermediate’, and ‘Advanced’.

On the Atonement is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.


  1. Sounds like he's quite near to McLeod-Campbell

    1. Possibly. I don't know enough about McLeod Campbell to say.