The Mosaic of Atonement
An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
When a certain theological topic has been so extensively written about that entire bookshelves could be filled with “multi-view” books and polemic arguments, one should be forgiven for wondering, “Does the church really need another book on this?” The atonement is undoubtedly one such topic, as pages upon pages have been printed both defending and excoriating specific theories, proposing new models and interpretations, or attempting to mollify the debate by suggesting an “every theory has something equally-valid to offer” approach. It is difficult to imagine a book that could move the conversation forward in such an environment, but Joshua McNall has done just that with his brilliant new book, The Mosaic of Atonement.
McNall’s key innovation, and a significant reason the book succeeds, is in the way he frames the entire atonement debate. He suggests that most writing on the subject falls into one of two camps: “defensive hierarchy,” in which one specific model is defended as superior to the others, or “disconnected plurality,” in which every model is presented as an equally-valid image or metaphor. The first (hierarchy) inevitably descends into some form of reductionism, while the second (plurality) is prone to relativism. Against each of these errors, McNall proposes that the major models of atonement should actually interact with one another in specific ways, ultimately interlocking and building into a grand, multifaceted mosaic of Christ’s work. Importantly, the end result of viewing the atonement in such a manner should not simply be deeper intellectual understanding, but worship.
Working with the image of a body, the four streams McNall includes in his mosaic are: recapitulation (the feet), penal substitution or vicarious judgement (the heart), Christus Victor (the head), and moral influence (the hands). Each stream of thought, each piece of the mosaic, is carefully explicated and summarized, including interactions with critiques and common questions. The result is a wide-ranging and comprehensive theological text that occasionally wanders into surprising territory.
First, McNall argues that the idea of recapitulation is an important foundational concept for any proper understanding of Christ’s work. Drawing heavily on the early church theologian Irenaeus, recapitulation proposes that, just as all of humanity is somehow bound up in the fall precipitated by Adam, all of humanity is also bound up in the redemptive work accomplished by Christ. Acknowledging upfront potential critiques, McNall devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of genetic science and the question of whether or not all humans must be genetically connected to an historical Adam for this theological foundation to make sense. An excursus is also included on the question of universalism. Like I said, this is a wide-ranging book.
As it is argued, recapitulation is the essential “feet,” or the foundation, through which the logic of other models (especially penal substitution) becomes clearer.
Because all humans are genuinely bound up in the Son, the true head of the entire human family (as recapitulation argues), Christ’s subsequent bearing of divine judgement is not identical to the hideous transfer of punishment between isolated and disconnected individuals. . . In this way, my Irenaeus-inspired account of recapitulation provides a foundational presupposition upon which an understanding of penal substitution can stand more sturdily. (90)
With the feet established, McNall next addresses what is potentially the thorniest section of the book, the idea of penal substitution (or, as he prefers to label it: vicarious judgement). He is clearly conversant and well-aware of the strongest critiques of penal substitution, and works to strike a delicate balance in his explication. One chapter is devoted to a summary of substitutionary logic in the patristic writings of the first 5 centuries, to demonstrate against critics that such atonement language is not, in fact, a recent innovation. Another chapter carefully considers biblical evidence for penal substitution, and a crucial chapter (aptly titled “Right But Repulsive?”) interacts with the strongest cultural critiques of substitutionary atonement, including questions of divine freedom and forgiveness, the breaking of the trinity on the cross, the myth of redemptive violence, and the legitimating of abuse. Again, it’s a remarkably wide-ranging discussion, and McNall delicately, but unapologetically, walks through a nuanced and confident defense of vicarious judgement in the work of Christ. Readers who despise penal substitution, and those who hold it up as the only way to talk about the cross, will both be challenged and stretched in this section.
Penal substitution logic stands only on the feet of Christ’s recapitulative identity (as the true Adam), and it is ultimately aimed toward the triumph of the Lamb, an event that is fully realized as the Spirit births a transformative moral influence in God’s people. It is the hub, but not the whole. ( 174, emphasis added)
For McNall, the crowned head of Christ’s atoning work is Christus Victor, or the victory over death and evil. The strongest element in this section is his deep engagement with the work of Walter Wink, and the consideration of the ontic status of Satan. He also carefully defines the nature of Christ’s victory as a now-and-not-yet, inaugurated eschatology. Readers already familiar with Christus Victor themes will find them enriched by how McNall links them to the previous threads of the book.
Finally, McNall includes the hands of moral influence in the grand mosaic of Christ. More than any other part of the book, these chapters contend for the ongoing, transformative power of Christ’s work in the lives of believers today. Contained in this section is a chapter reconsidering and defending the work of the medieval scholar Abelard, deep critical engagement with Rene Girard, and a strong pneumatology.
…the Spirit is the engine behind moral influence – igniting and restraining our desires and preventing our response from being either Pelagian or preprogrammed. By the Spirit of Christ, our particularities are redeemed and leveraged for the ministry of reconciliation. And when this happens, new creation once again emerges out of chaos. (308)
The Mosaic of Atonement is ostensibly a book about atonement doctrine, but the end result of McNall’s thorough explanation is so much more. Readers of this wonderful book are treated to extensive consideration of every layer of Christ’s work, and along the way are introduced to thinkers as broad as Irenaeus, Walter Wink, Gregory Boyd, Rene Girard, Morna Hooker, Hans Boersma, T.F. Torrance, Peter Abelard and John Wesley. The result is an awe-inspiring portrait of Christ, reminding us of how beautiful and worthy of our worship and devotion he is.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com