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Atonement, Law, and Justice

The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts

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Tackling an issue of perennial interest in the Christian academy, Adonis Vidu provides a critical reading of the history of major atonement theories by exploring selected patterns, recurrent concepts, and attempts to discern broader themes. Vidu also offers an in-depth analysis of the legal and political contexts within which these atonement theories arose. The book engages the latest work in atonement theory and serves as a helpful resource for contemporary discussions.

Vidu suggests that the history of atonement thinking can be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law. This is the only book that explores the impact of theories of law and justice on major historical atonement theories. Understanding this relationship yields a better understanding of atonement thinkers by situating them in their intellectual contexts. The book also explores the relevance of the doctrine of divine simplicity for atonement theory.

Students and scholars interested in understanding historic views of the atonement and their relation to theories of law and justice will value this work. It will also work well as a textbook for graduate courses in theology, ethics, and law.

1. Justice, Law, and the Cross in Patristic Thought
2. Medieval Atonement and the Legal Revolution
3. The Reformation: Luther, Calvin, and the Tradition of Penal Substitution
4. Modernity: Atonement and the Cure of the Soul
5. Atonement and the Postmodern Critique of Law
6. Atonement and the Perfection of Divine Agency


"Adonis Vidu has written a learned, thoughtful, and intriguing study of the history of atonement as it relates to concepts of law and justice. Of particular interest in the current context of wider discussions of the doctrine of God is Vidu's articulate exposition and defense of atonement in relation to divine simplicity. This is a fascinating and significant book that repays careful reading."

Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania

"Adonis Vidu does much more than provide a meticulous and perceptive overview of the history of atonement theology. He argues that we understand this history properly only by tracing the medieval interlacing of justice and law and their disentanglement in the modern period. And by linking the doctrine of divine simplicity to God's agency in the crucifixion, Vidu presents a nuanced plea for the inclusion of the role of punishment in a fully-orbed understanding of the death of Christ."

Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver; author of Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross

"The story of how the Christian doctrine of the atonement developed is both fascinating and important. Too often, however, it is told without proper attention to the importance of various intellectual contexts. In this work, Vidu calls clichés into question and works to show how different models of the atonement are related to varied notions of justice and law in the Western intellectual tradition. It is a work that will open further inquiry, and it will repay careful study."

Thomas H. McCall, associate professor of biblical and systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The Author

  1. Adonis Vidu

    Adonis Vidu

    Adonis Vidu (PhD, University of Nottingham) is associate professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and is the author of several books, including Theology after Neo-Pragmatism. He previously taught at...

    Continue reading about Adonis Vidu


"Atonement, Law, and Justice is an important work in its demonstration that punishment regularly occurs in atonement theories from the earliest period of theology through the Reformation, in its articulation of the relationship between legal and atonement theories, and in its call for a return to divine simplicity as the theological linchpin that shows God's love and justice as working together, not in tension. . . . This book should be commended to any reader who wishes to grasp the complexities of the history of this vital Christian doctrine more fully."

Matthew Y. Emerson,

Southeastern Theological Review

"[Vidu] provides a history of the ideas of law and justice in relation to various theories of atonement. . . . Vidu masterfully takes us through five periods of church history--patristic, medieval, Reformation, modern, and postmodern--and expounds the views of key theologians in each. . . . Vidu's insightful study shows how atonement theories were influenced by historical developments in politics and law."

Simon Chan,

International Bulletin for Missionary Research

"Vidu argues strongly that divine justice must be understood in light of divine simplicity. . . . Vidu brings nuance, careful reading, and cultural and contextual analysis to bear in refreshing ways. He does particularly fine work laying out understandings of legal systems and conceptions of justice throughout history. . . . His best contribution, though, is his analysis of the divine character in legal terms. . . . Not all will be convinced by this defense of substitutionary atonement, but by broadening the context of the history of atonement theology and carefully discussing divine agency, he offers an account of penal substitution that identifies and disposes of caricature and makes important methodological advances. The book is worthy of close attention and is accessible for the seminary student or educated layperson."

Travis E. Ables,


"This book will be of interest and help to those interested in the history of the atonement but unfamiliar with the political and legal contexts within which particular theologians and models are articulated. That God's action in Christ assumes a particular account of law, morality, and justice is worthy of further consideration for the evaluation of all those who write on the meaning of Christ's death."

Joshua W. Jipp,

Trinity Journal

"Drawing from the work of great figures like Aquinas, Luther, and Augustine, Vidu works mostly from primary sources, and offers clear and objective explanations of those sources. In addition to his own exposition, Vidu also makes appropriate use of secondary sources, while exercising humble restraint in areas in which he does not consider himself to be an expert. That said, he demonstrates a mastery, over the historical, philosophical, and theological considerations, that is often lacking in this kind of broad historical work. . . . This book is a valuable addition to the study of atonement theory. It represents years of research and it is clear that Vidu is at the top of his game. It makes a valuable entry in the library of any seminary level reader who is interested in the history of atonement theory and would make a perfect text for a course on atonement theory or a general course in systematic theology. Additionally, a course exploring cultural influence on concepts of justice would find the methodology of this book insightful."

Antonio L. Arsenal,

Africanus Journal

"A helpful introduction to the history of atonement theology and . . . a thoughtful proposal for understanding the atonement in the light of 'the perfection of divine agency.'. . . As a theological textbook, there is much to commend in Vidu's Atonement, Law, and Justice. The sheer scope of Vidu's project and the care that he devotes to the particular contexts in which the differing theories of the atonement have emerged make it a valuable contribution to any syllabus on the doctrine of the atonement and/or the history of the development of Christian thought. Moreover, Vidu's constructive proposal in the closing chapter makes an important contribution to current debates surrounding the meaning and significance of the cross. . . . Finally, given the affinity among evangelicals for the doctrine of penal substitution and the growing unease among many with the doctrine of divine simplicity . . . Vidu's project mounts a provocative challenge to those who insist upon maintaining the former while denying the latter. For all of these reasons and more, Atonement, Law, and Justice is well worth the read."

Jordan Hillebert,

Reformation 21

"[Vidu's] book does not simply fill a gap, but may in fact help us understand atonement modeling as a contextual paradigm, perhaps loosening our tight grip on particular expressions. . . . While I am not convinced that PSA [penal substitutionary atonement] is correct, I am convinced Vidu has provided the Church a rather important book in discerning the doctrine of atonement and allowing that it has developed. Also, I think he has called us to be mindful of our context and the way we approach issues of Christian thought. . . . Vidu gives us reason to suspect the liberal Protestant tradition along with post-modern thought may in fact be bankrupt when it comes to their stances on the atonement. It is expertly researched, meticulously crafted, and properly presented."

Joel Watts,

Unsettled Christianity blog

"I do not think that [Vidu] has resolved all the important questions surround this profound mystery--the nature of the atoning work of the cross--but what he does here is very, very valuable. . . . This sophisticated book really does make a helpful contribution by showing how various schools of thought and theories and theologies were rooted in certain historical and cultural settings. . . . This will repay careful study."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"A very fascinating book. . . . If you are looking for a book that is both a survey of atonement theories in their historical and cultural contexts as well as a constructive contribution to the atonement conversation then look no further, because you get both of those things in Atonement, Law, and Justice. . . . This is definitely the most interesting book on the doctrine of atonement published this year."

Chris Woznicki,

Cwoznicki Think Out Loud blog