Thomas Andrew Bennett’s work Labor of God is a short but dense book, in which he seeks to address the apathetic response from hearers to what we should expect to be the scandalous idea that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian message. From the beginning of the first chapter Bennett sets out the problem that he perceives with the mainstream language of Christ’s work on the cross, claiming that traditional metaphors have become stale and meaningless through over-familiarity. With this concern in view, Bennett’s work is an apologetic impulse to breathe new life into the proclamation of the cross. His answer is a biblical metaphor that he perceives to have been abandoned, that of “the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as the birthing pangs – the labor – of God, who bears renewed, spiritual sons and daughters into the world” (p. 5). He draws upon the Johannine concept of second—and spiritual birth particularly, leaning on John’s gospel and the familial language along with the relationship between Jesus and his followers. He defines the concept within historical theology, first citing medieval theologians Anselm of Canterbury, Julian of Norwich and Marguerite d’Oingt, and then citing more recent feminist theologians and the biblical scholar Murray Rae (who endorses the book) in support of the metaphor of childbirth to explain the work of Christ on the cross.
In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Bennett addresses the achievements of the cross according to this metaphor. He first addresses the issue of violence, which has become a major feature of discussions about atonement theology in recent years. He observes that childbirth is simultaneously painful and joyous due to the life-giving process of birth. The work of Christ in the light of this has a transformative element as at the cross Christ transforms human violence into something live-giving: the birthing of the church. Secondly, Christ’s work as the labor of God, also reverses the consequences of sin. Bennett helpfully presents sin as a corrupting influence, which distorts our world and our perceptions on every level. As a result, we are morally and ethically unable to correctly discern right from wrong. The work of Christ delivers rebirth to a new people as a means to restoration. God creates a new heart and a new spirit, therefore bringing about a change in nature reflective of our divine parentage. Finally, with such an approach Bennett avoids the economy of exchange that he identifies within traditional metaphors of atonement, because the gift of atonement is rebirth into a new community without the corruption of sin. This he believes offers a more faithful reading of the atonement in Romans 5.
Bennett’s work has much to commend it. He has restored a biblical and historical model of atonement that can helpfully sit beside other interpretations of the work of Christ. Furthermore, his apologetic and missional motivation in presenting this model is praiseworthy, grounding theology in a ministry context and presenting a helpful ecclesiological emphasis.
However, his bold claim that traditional understandings of atonement models such as sacrifice, victory and ransom have become stale, is unhelpful. Other recent works on the atonement still to some extent draw upon these classic models (e.g., Peter Leithart, Delivered From the Elements of the World [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996]; Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ [Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2015]). Does the existence of such works not imply that the models Bennett dismisses still have much to teach us?
Bennett is critical of substitutional and sacrificial models of the atonement because of their mutual reliance, calling them a “Frankenstein’s monster” of atonement, then referring to these models as “a bizarre, piecemeal metaphorical universe” (p. 78). This conclusion presents an internal problem, as Bennett’s criticism of metaphors leaning on others forces his own theory to be all encompassing and to stand-alone. No single metaphor, including Bennett’s, can achieve given the ineffable nature of the work of Christ.
Bennett’s work is helpful; he clearly and concisely presents a metaphorical reading of atonement that can expand and strengthen our understanding of the work of Christ. However, his critique of other atonement models as a means of expressing his own, steps beyond biblical and theological reasonability.