Friday, June 29, 2007

Book Review: Stephen Finlan

One of the best writers and scholars I have read on the subjects of the atonement is Stephen Finlan. I find that often when Christians come to discuss sacrifices, they make their own assumptions about what sacrifices achieved based on their ideas about Jesus and sacrifices prefiguring Jesus. Then, in a bout of circular reasoning, they turn around and look at the New Testament and interpret every sacrificial referent as being proof of their ideas about the atonement. I found that concepts Finlan introduces helped greatly to clarify the situation and his analysis of the evidence was extremely worthwhile. So if you've occasionally wondered how ancient sacrifices worked, or what Paul was meaning when he referred to them, then you need to read Finlan's work.

Stephen Finlan's first book was called The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, 2004. I believe this work was largely based on his PHD research on this topic. As such, this book is quite difficult reading, at times I found myself wishing a good editor had been let loose on the work.

In the first part of the book, different ideas about how sacrifices work are analyzed. I found especially interesting three concepts he introduced here and explored:
  1. the idea of looking cross-culturally in the ancient world to see if the writings of other cultures could help enlighten us about how people at that time saw sacrifices as working, and thus other cultures' views could be compared against Israel's.
  2. the idea that within one culture different types of sacrifices could be understood to work differently to each other. Not all sacrifices function in the same manner.
  3. the idea that within a culture the ideas about how sacrifices work and the purpose of sacrifices could change over time, and individuals could disagree over the function of and importance of sacrifices. He traces the typical patterns of thought-change over time among other sacrificial cultures and sees this same development throughout the bible.
In part two of the book he moves to analyzing Paul's use of sacrificial language. Finlan looks at how and why Paul uses sacrificial references in his writings. He finds Paul has a habit of merging sacrificial language with all sorts of other concepts - economics, slavery, judicial etc. Paul's usage of sacrificial language is thus really complicated, and Finlan's complicated writing doesn't make it much easier to understand.

Finlan's second book is called Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine, 2005. My wish about letting a good editor loose on the previous book has been granted! There is a very strong content overlap between this book and the previous book (as a result, I have a tendency to get confused about which piece of content is in which book). The major difference is that this one is highly readable. The original work has been compacted and slimmed down to a nice little 144 page wonder. Most of the significant content from the previous book is maintained in more concise fashion.

New in this shorter work are discussions about atonement doctrine itself within Christianity. The reader is led through Finlan's conclusions about sacrifices, and introduced to Paul's complex use of them in a much nicer way than the first book did. He looks at all the various atonement motifs and ideas that Paul uses and combines, and analyzes what Paul was meaning by them. His final conclusion is that he does not think Paul was meaning to imply that Christ performed "atonement" in the typical English sense of the word. ie Paul did not think Christ literally atoned for sin in anything close to the way Penal Substitution would suggest. Finlan then looks at what people throughout history have seen Christ as achieving and critiques their view before offering his own (which is the Recapitulation / Incarnation model).

In short, Finlan's book is a very high quality, readable, scholarly work on important subjects of ancient sacrifices and Paul's use of sacrificial language which are normally dealt with very poorly, but which no Christian who is interested in the atonement can afford to be ignorant of. In short, if you want to think you know something about the atonement you really do have to read Problems with Atonement, and if after you've read it, you're keen for more then read The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors as well.

Stephen Harris, one of my favorite bloggers (who really needs to blog more often! ~hint~ ~hint~), has written a lengthy review of Finlan's Problems with Atonement here.

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