Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker


This thought-provoking book succeeded in expanding my horizons concerning the way we explain what Christ accomplished for us on the cross.   Recovering the Scandal of the Cross provided a healthy reminder that all our theological explanations are metaphors.  And it demonstrated successfully that both the Bible and the history of Christian theology have provided more than one picture to help us grasp the breadth of what Jesus accomplished.   The authors further propose that different metaphors are absolutely essential because different ones fit different cultures and enable people of widely different backgrounds to find their way to the foot of the cross for salvation.   I certainly agree with the authors that the biblical metaphors are crucial for our basic understanding of Jesus’ work.  They are fixed in the language chosen by the Spirit in the revelation we have so they are foundational.   However, Green and Baker wisely suggest that sharing the Gospel in new cultures may require us to find new metaphors to communicate the old truths.   Chapters six through eight explore some contemporary cases.  “The tradition of atonement theology is and must be a living tradition (p. 214).”

It is obvious that the authors find the penal substitution metaphor somewhat distasteful.   They do not deny that it is a Biblical one.   However, they do object to its overuse, and do not think it among the best metaphors for communicating to 21st century Americans.    While I agree with them about the relative overuse of that metaphor, I felt that the section where the authors criticized it was one of the weakest sections of the book.  It seemed to state objections to the metaphor that needed to be then explained and substantiated.  Instead the authors seemed to assume the readers already found them obvious, which I frequently did not.   One such was the comment that penal substitution theology had been used to justify abuse.   I mentally responded like this:

  • To say that something has been abused says nothing about its truth or falsehood.   At most, if abuse is frequent or flagrant, it might point out a potential for abuse.
  • Were those who thus abused it theologians seeking to exegete the Word or simply oppressors serving their own ends?
  • I can conceive of theologians wrestling with suffering that happens when we are persecuted and comparing that to Christ’s suffering, as Paul seems to do when he says he “fills up in his body what remains of the sufferings of Christ,”     But this is not to justify abuse; far from it, it is rather to understand how persecution can also be redemptive.  

The authors did, however, succeed in sensitizing me to be careful how I describe penal substitution when I use that metaphor.   They have given me additional reason to avoid language that I already was uncomfortable with for other exegetical reasons, namely descriptions of the events of the crucifixion that divide the Father from the Son in radical ways. 

The most helpful aspect of the book was how it broadened my perspective in looking at the cross.   For example, this past Easter was enriched for me by thinking of the redemption model with its release from slavery into freedom.   As our church explored the connections between the Seder and the Last Supper on the Thursday evening of Holy week, I was able to focus on the idea of the release of the Israelites from slavery and how the New Covenant also releases us, separating these ideas from the metaphors of sacrifice and substitution that usually dominate. 

As I read this book, I had an increasing sense that I should enrich my own understanding and preaching by exploring multiple metaphors the Bible uses for Christ’s work.   The result will be that I will be able to connect God’s message with more people.   This broadened perspective is a real gift.   If one is interested in serious reflection on the theology of Jesus’ work on the cross and is willing to do the careful reading that the more academic writing style of this volume demands, the book is worth the effort.

Leave a Reply