I wonder if you, like me, have heard other Christians talk about how theology is ‘academic’. There’s an implication there that theology is not relevant to every day life. But reading Death By Love, a recent offering from Mark Driscoll along with Gerry Breshears, there can be no doubt that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is intensely applicable to your life and to mine.
Whatever you think of Driscoll, it is clear that he has a clear focus on applying the biblical text to the lives of his congregation. Whether or not you think he hits the mark is another issue but his efforts are evident in both his preaching and his writing. This too is the strength of Death By Love. The introduction gives a brief systematic theology of substitutionary atonement and then the rest of the book takes this doctrine and applies it to twelve different pastoral situations.
And these are not just theoretical applications – Driscoll shows how the atonement is relevant for a man caring for his dying wife; a raped woman; a broken family; ‘religious’ people; an abused boy; a betrayed husband; the despicable miscreant. They are real people whom Driscoll has encountered in his ministry and in each chapter he first of all explains something of their situation and then writes them a pastoral letter, exhorting, teaching and challenging them with an aspect of the atonement.
The letters have much of Driscoll’s characteristic (and controversial) style. They are confrontational and gritty; they reflect his strong views on gender; they are applied into a specific American context in a particular cultural style.
But they also reflect a holistic theological approach. Each chapter takes a different aspect of the atonement, even those that evangelicals have traditionally found somewhat uncomfortable, such as Christus Exemplar or Christus Victor.
That said, his focus on one aspect per chapter limits the usefulness of this book at times. For example, in ‘My Wife Slept with My Friend: Jesus is Luke’s New Covenant Sacrifice’, Driscoll so emphasises that justice has been served in Jesus and will be poured out on Luke’s friend who sinned so grievously if he does not repent, that he neglects to exhort Luke to forgiveness. But while it’s not a handbook for how to handle particular pastoral situations (because each one is different and complex) it is a helpful resource in considering how each aspect of the atonement is relevant in some way.
Words like ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’ become deeply meaningful in this book, because they speak to real situations. I saw myself in this book, as well as many of those I love. This is not ‘academic’ theology. This is palpable and concrete. This is theology that changes not just minds, but hearts and lives.
This book is high on my recommended reading list. You may find the delivery difficult; I know at times I did. But I appreciated Driscoll’s excellent attempt to apply this foundational doctrine to every day and sometimes extraordinarily messy lives. We need more of this sort of literature and more of it in Australia. We need it here because we need to work out what these doctrines look like in our own culture. But most of all we need it because it’s about the deep truths of our faith. And these truths are intensely relevant not just to academics but to the lives of all people.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.