July 16, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Pierced For Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach

416bsvxqyml_aa240_.jpgThis is the season of “Best of” lists, and I’m sure Pierced For Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach will be on more than a few lists. In the past year, Pierced For Our Transgressions may be the best-reviewed, highest recommended book in the Reformed blogosphere.

It was also one of the most anticipated and well-recommended books of the year. Endorsements and recommendations for PFOT are a “Who’s Who” of Reformed theologians, pastors and authors. Clearly, someone felt this was going to be “the” book to toss into the simmering controversies about theories of the atonement.

Pierced For Our Transgressions is a fair book. The authors are respectful and, as much as possible with such a massive subject, circumspect in their presentation of a large variety of points of view opposed to their own.

The book is written in a non-academic, serious style that would be accessible to many laypersons who might not normally read a theological book on this level. Very appropriate for pastors and students.

In 350 pages, the book is comprehensive in approach, but keeps the presentation lively and remarkably brief. Summaries end every section. A massive bibliography and complete footnotes make the book highly usable by academics. A historical survey is very helpful in getting a sense of how other Christians have addressed the topic.

I’ve rarely seen a book that was so careful and complete in naming, sampling and answering objections. Nearly 180 pages of the book are devoted to categorizing and responding to every kind of possible criticism of penal substitutionary atonement. While I’m sure every one of those critics would say their objection stands, they can’t say they weren’t given a fair and respectful- for the most part- hearing.

If you are interested in the topic of penal substitution at all, this book is certainly a must-have. If you believe the “heart of the Gospel” is under attack in the theology of some contemporary evangelicals, this book will bolster your case.

I received this book to review several months ago, and was determined to read it all before writing anything. I appreciate the opportunity to experience the scholarship and quality presentation in PFOT.

I would like, however, to make some critical comments.

1) The Biblical section of the book does “Biblical theology” in the way most common among fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today, i.e. the accumulation of verses and portions of texts representing the author’s point of view. PFOT is a defense of a position that is never questioned by the authors. Every portion of the book is defending the position the authors at the outset.

This is not an exploration of Biblical texts, but an explanation of texts and verse in lines with a strong advocacy of the reformed view of penal substitution.

2) The book is a fine explanation of the authors’ views on penal substitution. Other points of view are surveyed and sampled as criticisms of penal substitution. It would be a mistake to assume that the book is an exploration of the genuine question of what the Bible says or what different scholars have believed and taught. The book is a defense of a predetermined point of view.

3) That position is the reformed doctrine as articulated by Calvinists such as John Owen, complete with an extensive discussion of the necessity of believing in “Limited Atonement.” It seems a bit surprising to know that the author’s would defend the “L” as essential to a Biblical view of the atonement. This illustrates perfectly that PFOT is, despite its many strengths, defending a position it starts with and presenting all critics with the option of adopting the reformed view of the limited atonement as the only option for Christian orthodoxy. Considering all the baggage that goes along with the “L,” especially regarding God’s love for all persons, readers should be warned that every word of defense in PFOT is defending the “Limited by God intentionally” view of the atonement. (Of course, for the intended audience for this book, that’s not really a problem.)

4) The authors are clearly taking aim at the recent comments of Steve Chalke, as well as recent books questioning some aspects of some uses of penal substitutionary atonement as popularly presented. The authors have an excellent section on preaching illustrations on substitutionary, penal atonement and admit that there can be major problems in how the doctrine is presented. But they find it impossible to consider that any of their critics is ever doing anything less than going after the heart of the Gospel by raising questions or disagreements.

I believe the discussion regarding certain aspects of penal substitution has been going on for a very, very long time in Christian theology, and many traditions, while affirming penal substitution, have not chosen to go as far as some of the reformed in presenting the inner workings and mysterious aspects of the doctrine. The reformed, because of their doctrine of limited atonement, have considerably more interest in going into detail on the “inner workings” of this doctrine than other traditions.

5) I have not read the books with which the authors take issue, but it is hard for me to believe that all of them have in common the same desire to abandon penal substitution. I suspect that many of these books have raised questions and issues in an inquiring way that PFOT responds to as criticisms. It is important to know that many people are willing to have a rigorous discussion about many aspects of the penal substitutionary view, but at the end of the day they will affirm it, preach it, use it in pastoral care and otherwise live out of it as a Biblical truth.

I can’t criticize PFOT for not being a broad survey of doctrine, because it’s not. It is an advocacy and defense of one type of penal substitution and the accompanying doctrine of limited atonement. I simply believe readers should realize that this book, for all its many strengths, is not attempting to participate in a typical theological discussion or exploration, but to win readers over to a very particular viewpoint. This is a good and acceptable task for any book.

I highly recommend Pierced For Our Transgressions. It is a fine book. I’ve given it to friends and I will consult it as representative of the view it advocates.

Comments

  1. Would you say you agreed or disagreed with the thesis of the book?

  2. I am not a Calvinist and I don’t accept limited atonement. (If someone wants to debate limited atonement, I’m not your guy.) So I don’t accept their premise that a Calvinistic understanding of limited atonement is the heart of the gospel.

    But I do accept their definition of penal substitutionary atonement as a valid and Biblical description of one aspect of the person and work of Jesus.

    I would not see that message as dominant and controlling of the entirety of the Gospel as they do.

    I would agree with Lewis that specific and detailed theories of the atonement are not the ground of creedal agreement. Confessional, yes. Creedal, no.

  3. Groovy. I am a Calvinist myself, so I am especially hoping someone got me this book off my Amazon wish list. Thanks for posting the review!

  4. Jon Bartlett says

    Michael,

    I’d far rather give someone John Stott’s ‘The Cross of Christ’ or Scott McKight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement’, that both support PSA but in an irenic manner. They also APPLY atonement into the life of the church much better, rather than present it as an abstract belief.

    Every blessing this Christmas

    Jon

  5. Hey iMonk,
    Needless to say I disagree with the overall thought of the book, I flipped through it at my school library and found it interesting. What I found more helpful was a book that just came into our school titled Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. It has essays from Volf, Allison, Wright, Borg, Weaver, Rohr, Rowan Williams, Ekblad, and many more, with endorsements from McLaren, Heim, Hauerwas, and Boyd. I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on a book that isn’t focusing on refuting our traditional understandings of atonement, but that shows some strong viable alternatives (and this essays don’t hide from the counter argument).
    Have merry Christmas.

  6. Jon: …but in an irenic manner.

    No fair. On this blog, only Michael is allowed to send me to the dictionary. 😉

    Merry Christmas, everyone!