Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific WorldMODELS OF ATONEMENT: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World by George L. Murphy.  Minneapolis, MN:  Lutheran University Press, 2013.  145 pages. Paperback; $18.00.  ISBN:  978-1-932688-85-6.

‘It’s like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin!  Who cares about all this faith-science talk?  What does it possibly have to do with the Gospel?  With salvation?’  We’ve probably all heard comments like this before; maybe even entertained them ourselves.  It is a legitimate question, and one that George Murphy takes very seriously.

Readers of Covalence will recognize Murphy as the theological editor of this online publication, and a frequent contributor to faith-science discussions in a variety of venues.  As a physicist, theologian, and long-time preacher, he is well-suited to provide “…a way of understanding the atonement that makes contact with a scientific understanding of the world [page 6]”. [Full disclosure: I am a colleague of his on the Steering Committee of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology.]

An obvious place for science to interact with a theology of atonement (soteriology) is in the theology of creation (ktisiology). This is precisely the approach taken in this book, although the emphasis is on re-creation or new creation.  Beginning with a brief introductory chapter on the concept and language of atonement (at-one-ment), the book begins the ‘heavy lifting’ with a concise yet very readable summary of Luther’s theology of the cross, which insists that the Christian God is not to be found in power and glory but rather only when viewed through the Cross.

This of course is the core of Murphy’s longtime approach to the faith-science dialogue.  Chapter three then concentrates on the science involved in human ancestry, the meaning of human nature, and issues of defining “humanness”.  Following on this is a discussion of sin, its universality, and the possible meaning and origin of sin in a world of human evolution (Chapter 4).  Continuing in a theological vein, the concept of renewal of creation (regeneration, atonement) is illustrated using examples from both Old and New Testaments, as well as early church fathers.  This leads to a discussion of the Incarnation (Jesus as both true God and true man) and the fiducial nature of the cross-resurrection event as it applies to humanity and the world described by science (Chapter 6).  In other words, salvation is not dependent on our theories of how atonement works, but on the “actual event” as something which removes the separation between a person and God.  Access to that actual event is through faith (fiducia).

Justification and its cognate terms in the Formula of Concord (an early summary of Lutheran beliefs) permit justifying faith to be viewed as “re-generation,” “re-birth,” and “re-creation.”  Thus the God who created from nothing (ex nihilo) is also the God who is and will bring about the new creation from the old (ex vetere).  Contact between ktisiology – about which science has much to add – has now been made with soteriology.  Murphy has no intention of replacing traditional theological language and images with strictly science-related ones, but this chapter especially allows pastors and teachers to make theological connections with people who – except for an hour or two on Sunday mornings – live almost exclusively in a culture dominated by science.  This is no small accomplishment.  Likewise, the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to fulfillment this new creation is explored.

The last chapter addresses the cosmic scope of “re-creation”.  To quote a comment once made about the late theologian Joseph Sittler, “With both feet firmly planted in mid-air, he [in our case, Murphy] takes off in several directions.”  I mean this in the best possible sense.  Cosmic re-creation has cosmic repercussions – and some of those involve items on which we have very little information.  Thus Murphy briefly discusses topics such as ‘Salvation Outside the Church?’, ‘Salvation beyond Humanity?’, and ‘Salvation beyond the Earth?’

Now let me add a few good-natured complaints.  First, there are an unusual number of typos and printing errors plaguing the book.  Though this seldom (if ever) affects the reader’s understanding of the text, it is annoying.  Second, the lack of an index makes it more difficult to use the book as a reference. Third, reversing the title and subtitle would – to my mind – have given a more accurate impression of the book’s message (and not sounded quite so stodgy).  Lastly, a final chapter summarizing the content of the book, even if using only bullet points, would help the reader process the book’s content.  It’s easy to get lost in the details; something to pull it all together at the end would have helped.  But all of these are minor issues.

This is a very necessary book.  For all too long the so-called “faith-science dialogue” has listened to its own siren song.  Its discussions have been academically astute, books and articles often have been academically outstanding, but there has been little direct connection with the heart of the Christian message – the Gospel from the pulpit.  This book is not the final word on the subject, but it is a challenging and thoughtful first word with direct application to preaching and education.  Enjoy it – but be sure to share it as well!

Karl Evans

Dr. Karl Evans is a retired geologist from a federal agency in Denver, Colorado. His field studies have concentrated on the geology of central Idaho, with occasional research forays into New Mexico and Colorado. He also has laboratory experience in U-Pb geochronology, a method which uses the mineral zircon to determine the age of the host rock. He is pleased to support the alumni associations of Franklin & Marshall College (A.B.), the University of Southern California (M.S.), and Pennsylvania State University (Ph.D.). As a member of Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado, Karl has taught adult-learning classes on the dialogue between science and Christian faith, where his fellow parishioners seem to revel in asking questions completely outside the field of geology.


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