God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation

By Wollaston, Isabel | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation


Wollaston, Isabel, Anglican Theological Review


God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation. By Timothy Gorringe. Cambridge Studies in Ideology and Religion 9, Cambridge University Press, 1996. xiv + 280 pp. $59.95 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

This Series aims to `give all objective, balanced, programmatic coverage to issues which-while of wide potential interest--have been largely neglected by analytical investigation, apart frorn the appearance of sporadic individual studies.' Given this remit, it seems surprising that the Series should include a volume on atonement and the place of violence in the `rhetoric of salvation . This, after all, is relatively well-trodden ground. However, Timothy Gorringe's approach to the subject is slightly different from the norm. His thesis is that `attitudes to crime and punishment in the West are, beyond argument, rooted deep in the Christian Scriptures' (p. 223). His aim is to demonstrate that developments in atonement theory-particularly notions of expiation, propitiation, satisfaction and retributivist justice-both reflect and influence wider social attitudes to criminal law and the justice system.

God's Just Vengeance is divided into three clearly defined parts. In the first, the foundations of the argument are laid via a discussion of the biblical sources for atonement theory In the second, there is a critique of past thinking on atonement, t)oth that which might be defined as 'objective' (e.g. Anselm. Calvin) and that which might be dubbed 'subjective' (e.g. Abelard, R. C. Moberly). In the third, we are introduced to the contemporary debate, albeit somewhat impressionistically. Having offered a critique of how atonement theory has interacted with penal thinking in the past, Gorringe concludes more positively by offering suggestions as to the contribution Christian thinking on the atonement could and should make to this ongoing impassioned debate.

Underlying the whole argument is the belief that `part of the power of Christianity as a missionary religion is that its central symbol, the cross, targets both guilt and violence, and offers a remedy to both through the "bearing" of guilt and the refusal to meet violence with counter-violence` (p. 11). Yet, as Gorringe readily acknowledges, much atonement theory has interpreted the cross precisely as the meeting of violence (sin) with counter-violence (the necessary death of the Son of God as propitiation or satisfaction). l ence, there is a need to acknowledge the existence of a 'shadowside' to Christianity, a rhetoric of violence that expresses itself in Christian interpretations of the events of the cross, in Christian attitudes to the Other, and in various forms of 'Christian masochism'. Ironically, 'a story which was a unique protest against judicial cruelty came to be a validation of it. The community which was supposed not to be conformed to the world now underwrote its repressive practice' (p. 81). For Gorringe, it is therefore necessary to return to the biblical and theological texts on which so much has been built and reread them. He argues that while the New Testament can be read to support theories of satisfaction and retributivist justice, it does not have to be read in that way. He therefore makes a case for alternative readings of Scripture, particularly of St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, and calls for a theology of the atonement rooted in the Synoptic Gospels.

Gods Just Vengeance offers a provocative and impassioned 'take' on atonement theory There is much in it with which to agree and disagreealways the sign of a successful argument! …

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