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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Sherman, Robert


King, Priest, and Prophet. A Trinitarian Theology of Atonement.


New York-London: T & T Clark International (Continuum) 2004. XII, 291 S. gr.8° = Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Kart. £ 22,00. ISBN 0-567-02560-8.


Vincent Brummer

According to Robert Sherman ðthe doctrine of atonement stands at the heart of the Christian message, so it should be at the heart of one¹s everyday faithÐ (4). In this book Sh. tries to develop the doctrine of atonement in a way that is biblically based, doctrinally sound and pastorally useful for illuminating ðthe heart of one¹s everyday faithÐ. In doing so he takes his point of departure in the distinction between the threefold office of Christ, as King, Priest and Prophet which, as he shows, has been especially popular in the Reformed theological tradition. He furthermore tries to show how this distinction connects with the doctrine of the Trinity whereby all three persons in the Trinity are involved in the work of atonement.

The greater part of the book is devoted to a detailed examination of the way in which Christ as King liberates us from the evil powers that keep us enslaved in a state of sinfulness and estrangement; how Christ as Priest liberates us from the guilt that we have brought upon ourselves by our sinful actions; and finally how Christ as Prophet liberates us from ðhuman weakness or ignorance or finitude, uncertainty about one¹s meaning or purpose, a misinformed identity of a misplaced fear of GodÐ (251).

Throughout the book Sh. connects this threefold liberating work of Christ with the three persons of the Trinity. In doing so he develops a suggestion derived from John Henry Newman: ðIt will be observed Š that in these three offices He [Jesus] also represents to us the Holy Trinity; for in His proper character He is a priest, and as to His Kingdom He has it from His Father, and as to His prophetical office He exercises it by the Spirit. The Father is the King, the Son the Priest and the Holy Ghost the prophetÐ (31 n.).

There is much to commend this book. Sh.s extensive presentation of the Biblical material, especially on the threefold office of Christ, is very informative. In various ways his approach is commendably broad. In the first place he intends his book to contribute not only to the academic debate on the doctrine of atonement, but also to do so in a way that is pastorally useful in contemporary society: ðI want to take seriously the challenges and complexity of contemporary life, on its individual and collective levelsÐ (3). In a way this also applies to his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. He tries to ground his treatment of the atonement in the doctrine of the Trinity because, as he claims, ðone can understand adequately neither the multifaceted reconciliation of a complex humanity to God nor that reconciliation¹s fundamental unity as God¹s gracious act apart from the TrinityÐ (9). In doing so, however, the doctrine of atonement provides the context within which the doctrine of the Trinity can become existentially relevant for ordinary believers in the pew who all too often experience it as a mere intellectual construction by academic theologians. Secondly his approach is also broad in the sense that he tries to accommodate all three commonly cited models of atonement by showing them to be one-sided when opposed to each other. Thus the Christus victor model one-sidedly emphasises the kingly role of Jesus, the model of vicarious sacrifice his priestly role and the ðmoral exemplarÐ model his prophetic role in effecting the atonement.

My difficulties with the book stem from the fact that its broad approach leads to its trying to do too much. Sh. is like a juggler who tries to keep too many balls in the air and therefore cannot avoid letting some of them drop to the ground. Thus in his christological reflections he pays detailed attention to the three offices of Christ but has nothing to say about the distinction between the divinity and the humanity of Christ and the way in which both of these are involved in the work of atonement. Since this issue is central to the contemporary christological debate, I think that this is one ball he should not have dropped. Secondly, while he is to be praised for showing that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in the atoning work of God, he assumes without argument that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are three distinct agents who in some way co-operate in the work of atonement. In doing so he fails to show how this view avoids becoming tritheistic and contradicting the unity of God. He thus ignores the important contemporary debate between social and Latin trinitarians. This is another ball that he should not have dropped. This lack of clarity about the question whether the unity of the Godhead is not more than a mere form of co-operation between three distinct agents, shows itself in his attempt to defend the Anselmian model of vicarious sacrifice. On the one hand he correctly rejects attempts to develop this model in a way that assumes a ðdivision of will, attitude and purpose between God the Father and God the SonÐ (34). Also he rejects an understanding of ðthe will and work of the Father as distinct from and in some sense imposed upon the SonÐ since this seems to ðstem from either a tritheistic or Ebionitic understanding of the relation between these two personsÐ (205). On the other hand, one might ask whether his view that ðthe paschal lamb serves to protect the people from the divine wrathÐ (178) does not suggest such a ðdivision of will, attitude and purposeÐ between the Father and the Son. To make matters worse, he tries to defend Anselm against the accusation that his view of the atonement ðportrays a vain and petulant GodÐ (189) by appealing to the doctrine of divine impassibility that excludes such an attitude in God. But does this not entail a ðdivision of will, attitude and purposeÐ between the impassible Father and the suffering Son? Finally, he seems to assume a rather superficial view on the nature of forgiveness as an attitude in which sin is ðsimply ignored or arbitrarily excusedÐ (190). For this reason in the atonement ðsomething other than mere forgiveness is clearly required: Š every sin is necessarily followed by satisfaction or by punishmentÐ (191). This view confuses forgiveness with condonation and overlooks the fact that unlike condonation forgiveness costs something and that this price is paid by the suffering of the one who forgives. If God is the one who forgives, then God is himself the one who suffers. But then the price of forgiveness cannot be passed on from the impassible God to the suffering Son.

These critical comments do not detract from the merits of the book. They merely point out some of the balls that Sh. has inadvertently dropped and urge him to pick them up again and reconsider them in his feat of theological juggling.