I wrote the following review after reading the book when it was assigned for my Christian Theology II class, covering Christology and soteriology, at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Most of my readings for that class were great. This one? Well, you’ll see.
Leon Morris’ The Atonement is, as near as I can tell, fairly well regarded. Given the importance of the doctrine of the atonement to our faith, I had hoped that the book would be a profitable read when I saw that it was assigned as reading for one of my classes this semester. Unfortunately, the book fell far short of my hopes.
The problems with the book are manifold. To begin, Morris is simply not a very good writer. Run-on sentences crop up regularly. He seems to be aiming for both a friendly conversational tone and erudition. (Conversational and scholarly writing are both fine; the combination fails miserably for nearly anyone but G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis. Take it from me: I should know.) Most importantly, Morris’ chapters are essentially thesis-less, and the “conclusions” to which he comes rarely follow from the material presented in the rest of the chapter. The section on redemption was particularly egregious in this regard: he turned from a long discussion of redemption practices in the ancient world to a short summary focusing on the Christian view of sin in contrast to the modern world’s view of the human situation—with no transition or connection between the two.
This is one of the two basic problems with the book, in fact. His chapters are essentially aiming to do two different things. On the one hand, Morris is clearly interested in laying out the historical and linguistic background of the various ideas associated with the atonement (the sacrificial system, Passover, redemption, etc.). On the other hand, he clearly wants to find points of application to the Christian life. In each chapter, he spends most of his time on the first, then makes a rushed switch to the second for the final pages of the chapter. At no point is this transition well-written, and in no chapter does the application follow closely from the points he made in the background material. Even within the background material which dominates each chapter, Morris wanders. It is as if he is not sure whether he wanted to provide an informative overview of the context, to argue against various views others have offered regarding that background,1 or to make some sort of theological argument. Thus, he bounces between each of these modes rather haphazardly, sometimes even within a single paragraph.
This emphasis on background also rather defeats the purpose of the book. If the aim is to help people see and savor the glory of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf—a noble and worthy goal—then Morris simply did the wrong thing. He spends most of his time in the book on word studies, historical context, and so on. When he does get to his “application” sections,2 he usually has said very little about Scripture’s teaching on the atonement. Telling people what words mean, or explaining the rabbis’ records of Second Temple Judaism practice, is not the same as explaining the Scriptures. The book reads like a sermon series from the historical-grammatical school where the background has been mistaken for the content instead of as a helpful tool where the content is not clear.3 Morris wastes his readers’ time with secondary matters and speeds over the riches of the text itself.
When Morris does pay attention to the actual content of Scripture rather than its background, he tends to dwell on his hobby-horses instead of letting Scripture speak for itself. He often writes things like, “Of course, Scripture does include (one idea), but really we should take it (in some other way).”— where the latter is his preferred reading, and the former the way the text actually reads. Unsurprisingly, then, the best chapters in the book are those where his hobby-horses are nearest the actual point of the text in question. In the final three chapters of the book, he veers away into secondary matters much less and focuses on the text much more. It made for a significant improvement.
Alas, even this improvement did nothing to help resolve the other significant problem with the book. In short, Morris’ approach to New Testament doctrine is hopelessly reductionistic. Everything comes down to the idea of payment for the guilt of sin, even in chapters where he tries to talk about other things. Morris set out to write a book on the atonement, and instead of spending his time tracing out the atonement itself, he tried to make every other aspect of our salvation a part of the atonement. The book might have worked had it been titled Salvation, but in seeking to make every part of God’s saving work into a mere aspect of atonement, Morris both diminished those other parts and failed to spend much time discussing the atonement itself.
In this Morris is very much typical of evangelicalism, sad to say. We are a crucicentric people, and though this has its upsides, it also means we tend to rewrite all of our doctrines in terms of penal subtitutionary atonement, rather than letting them all work together as they do in the Bible. Atonement is one central and crucial (pun intended) part of our salvation, but it is not the whole of our salvation.
Morris’ book could have been a helpful volume; a robust doctrine of the atonement is a wonderful thing. I am sad to say that The Atonement simply wasn’t very good. There are helpful bits scattered throughout, but to find them one must wade through a great deal of poorly written, unnecessarily polemical, disorganized, distracted meandering about things that are not the atonement (though they are themselves wonderful). I cannot recommend it.
Including, unfortunately, the occasional joke about the Church Fathers’ views on aspects of the atonement are. At one point, he goes so far as to describe the Fathers’ “ransom view” of the atonement as silly and only worth laughing at. We might disagree with the Fathers’ ransom view of the atonement, with God paying Satan—I do—but we hardly ought to laugh at them. This is chronological snobbery of the worst sort.↩
Usually focusing on the shape of the Christian life—an odd choice in a book one would think would focus on the gospel itself. To be sure, I think that the atonement has enormous implications for the Christian life. Morris never shows how they connect, though, and he doesn’t spend any time talking about the marvel of the atonement itself for the Christian, either. It is just strange.↩
This is the way that the historical-grammatical approach normally goes wrong. Other approaches have their own typical foibles, of course.↩