Delivered From the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission
Peter J. Leithart. Delivered From the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016, 368 pp. $27.00.
Reviewed by Andrew Song
In Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart seeks to answer Anselm’s paradigmatic question: Cur Deus Homo? In answering this question, the underlying assumption Leithart hopes to bring to light is anthropological: “We are social and political creatures” (13). This insight extends the key to understand Leithart’s task of proposing a comprehensive atonement model that casts human beings as first caught up in the nexus of social relations.
Leithart’s schema follows a simple problem/solution—sin/salvation—outline, which reaches back into Genesis. Expelled from the presence of God, humanity suffers the fallen condition of living under fleshly socio-political structures that exacerbate division. The salvific solution would result in a restoration of communion with God and peace amongst humans through deliverance from the flesh. Flesh, for Leithart, acts as a “master metaphor” (78). It takes on a dynamic meaning that does not mean simply material bodies or the condition of living in a post-fall world. Rather, the problematic in the post-fall condition is not that humanity is in the flesh but that human beings live solely according to flesh distorting what was once good (81). Thus, sin is when humans attempt to compensate for their mortal flesh. When this occurs, flesh takes on a transpersonal reality that acts as a dominating power—the elements of the world. By construing sin as a force that is exterior to and imposes itself upon humans, it necessitates a social element to the problem; sin is not something that must be dealt with on an individual level. Flesh, augmented by sin, produces communities which are “exclusivist, divided and competitive” (84).
In response to this problem of sin, God instituted the Torah as a temporary solution. As a social and political reality, the Torah “permitted limited access” to God by “rearranging the elements” (96). Furthermore, by reordering the elements, a unity amongst humans began to take effect to remedy the violence existing between communities. The Torah could not conclusively solve the issue of sin because sin itself corrupted the law by causing it to accomplish the opposite of its ordained role. Leithart argues that the law was divinely circumscribed to “provoke transgressions or to ‘define’ transgressions” (120). With the role of the law now defined, it is placed within God’s final plan of redemption as a piece of evidence condemning the flesh.
To speak of the atoning work of God in Christ, Leithart avers that there is, “complete continuity between Torah and Jesus” (137). Thus, Jesus does not destroy but fulfils the purpose of the Torah. Jesus, in fulfilling the Torah, seeks to overcome flesh through reconciling and reuniting human beings by introducing a social structure that is bound by the Spirit. In realizing this task, Jesus catalyzes the climactic struggle between flesh and Spirit which results in his death. But what was the role of the Father in this event? In a succinct statement Leithart claims, “It was the Father’s pleasure to deliver the Son to be crushed by godless hands; in delivering the Son to the godless the Father laid on the Son all of Israel’s liability for punishment” (165). After death, the resurrection follows as an event that finalizes and vindicates the justification of humanity. By reversing the effects of the flesh the Father reveals his justice as the Lord of the living and the dead. For Leithart, the resurrection is crucial to any notion of justification since “one could hardly speak of vindication or justification” if God “left [Jesus] in the grave” (186). In this universal event, God solves the problem of flesh and sin by providing a new social order in the Spirit—the Church.
Leithart’s ambitious work on the atonement is an impressive attempt to include many significant elements. His erudition in including the important contemporary developments in Pauline theology, the social sciences, while also being sensitive to the history of atonement theology is commendable. Nevertheless, there are two points that are worth noting. Leithart continually refers to “flesh” and sin” throughout his work but there are times at which greater clarity would have been helpful. It has already been noted that flesh is a dynamic term. Flesh outside of Eden becomes “mortal,” corrupt (77). But later on he states, “Flesh is good. Even mortal flesh is not evil in itself” (81, emphasis in original). Flesh turns corrupt when humans attempt to compensate for their finitude. This dynamicity of the term is prone to confusion and prompts the desire for a clearer use of the term. One wonders why he did not use the more conventional term “sin” instead. Second, Leithart asserts that the Father does not punish Jesus but that he “hand[s] Jesus over to be charged, falsely, by Jews and Romans” (167). The punishment, in this case, becomes a human one. But in other instances, it does not make sense of his other claim that, “If Jesus did not step in to take Israel’s punishment, wrath would come to the uttermost” (164). These statements leave Leithart open to criticism, leaving readers anticipating further works clarifying these matters.
Despite these two concerns, I have benefitted greatly from Leithart’s work. It was a work immersed in the Scriptures and also sensitive to contemporary concerns. His formulation of the social nature of sin was especially informative and insightful. It was helpful to see that a penal substitutionary model is still viable even if one holds sin to be primarily as an exterior force. In this manner, I see Leithart’s work as a creative ecumenical proposal that can serve as a starting point to bridge the East and the West. In an age where the rhetoric of unity becomes cheapened by division and violence, Leithart advances a program where “fleshly structures of exclusion and division are abolished… Spirit in flesh: that is new creation” (294).
Andrew Song, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary