Not Ashamed of the Gospel. By Morna D. Hooker. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 143 pp. Paper $10.99.
Reading this book reminded me of the first line of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The good news about this book (“the best of times”) is that it includes some profound observations. The bad news (“the worst of times’) is that it clouds rather than clarifies the central teaching of the NT.
Dr. Hooker is Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, England. She begins her introduction with the obvious statement, “There is no doubt that the death of Jesus lies at the heart of the Christian gospel, and therefore of the New Testament.” She adds: “The fact that Jesus has died can hardly be described as good news; the belief that he died for our sins is—but what a complexity of ideas is hidden in the statement that ‘he died for our sins’!” The remainder of the book is her attempt to determine what the major NT writers believed the death of Christ means. Her declared purpose for writing is, “to explore a few of the many different ways in which the death of Jesus came to be explained and interpreted by our New Testament authors.” She makes it a point not to interact with the scholarly literature on this subject, but instead to focus on the primary data of the NT itself.
From a positive perspective, the author does work through the major portions of the NT. Along the way she does make occasional worthwhile observations. For example, the book brilliantly describes the scandal and the paradox to a first century mind of any Gospel centering on a crucified person. Hooker stresses that first-century people, “just did not wish to think about crucifixion.” Further, she argues that the incongruity of the cross in its original cultural setting is proof of the actual historical reality of Jesus. “Here, incidentally, is the real answer to those who from time to time have attempted to argue that Jesus never existed: men might have made up a story about a preacher and a healer, but never would they have invented such a crazy gospel as this. The cross was a symbol of weakness—of total impotence.” Also it is refreshing that throughout the book, the author stresses that only the resurrection (or at least the apostles’ sincere conviction that the resurrection occurred) transforms a Gospel of a crucified Savior, “since Christ had been risen from the dead, this meant that he had been vindicated by God.”
From a negative perspective, Hooker concludes that the NT authors primarily understand the death of Christ as an example of self-sacrifice as opposed to an expiation for the sins of the world that saves believers. This emphasis on the cross as “example” is so pronounced that one fears that she is attempting to implicitly deny the expiatory nature of the cross altogether. However, the author hedges on this issue a few times, and does occasionally acknowledge the cross as “expiation,” so it would be wrong to claim that she rejects the propitiatory power of the cross. For example, at the end of the last chapter: “fundamental to all these authors is the belief that the death and resurrection of Christ are the great redemptive act by which God has brought a new community into being.”
Oddly to my ears at least, Hooker makes a point of denying that the death of Christ was “substitutionary”! She writes: “Some commentators have assumed that Paul is thinking of Christ’s death…as substitutionary. But this does not seem to me to be an appropriate way of describing it.” As horrific as this statement sounds, the reader’s reaction should be tempered by the fact that the author clearly does not mean this the way it sounds. For her, Christ’s death is nonsubstitutionary in the sense that He did not die on the cross for our sins in order to deliver us from having to die on a cross for our own sins! Such a narrow, nontechnical definition for “substitution” relative to the cross may indicate that thes British author is unaware that American evangelicals use substitution in our understanding of the cross as a “substitutionary atonement” in a completely different manner: that Christ’s death on the cross paid a moral debt for us/for our sins that we couldn’t pay for ourselves (as opposed to His doing something for us that we could have hypothetically done for ourselves).
Finally, this book’s emphasis on the cross as “example” for mankind to follow will give “aid and comfort” to the Lordship Salvation camp. Although it does contain some worthwhile observations, these are too few to merit anyone not collecting published “proofs” of Lordship Salvation to purchase it.
Tanglewood Bible Fellowship