Reflecting on Peter Leithart’s Delivered From the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission
It’s Holy Week and so I wanted to take some time to reflect on Peter Leithart’s brilliant book on how the death and resurrection of Jesus’ death have changed everything. It felt unwise to attempt a comprehensive book review for two reasons: one, because of the massive amount of ground he covers in the book and two, Leithart’s book has already received pretty comprehensive treatment in the blogosphere of it already. So I what I want to do is use it as a springboard for some reflections during Holy Week. Let me first offer some book-review type opening thoughts on the style and purpose of the book before getting into some more informal and personal reflections throughout the rest of Holy Week.
Leithart’s writing, in what has to be considered his magnum opus, is provocative, wide sweeping and bold. Jamie Smith blurbs that this work is a modern-day City of God and there is no doubt that, like Augustine, Leithart has little patience with presentations of the gospel that leave any room for the old powers and principalities at the table. It is an apologetic tour de force and claims, along with Paul, that the very quarks that make up the elements of the world —the substance of the bread and wine themselves—have been transformed in the light of the death and resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. Leithart self-describes his book as his “Big Red Book About Everything” but unlike Mao’s Little Red Book, this work is truly life giving— truly revolutionary— because the story which it reveals is the righteousness of God made manifest.
Atonement as Social Theory and a Theory Of Everything
The especially brilliant thing about Leithart’s work—and what gives it its gritty sense of urgency—is how Leithart immerses the atonement into the messy social realities of our world. Our Savior came to dwell with us in the flesh and so our theories of the atonement must follow the Lord’s embodiment. Any writing on the atonement must be social theory—a word that speaks to our work, family life, money, sexuality, politics and play—if it is to have any relevance at all. Leithart centers his treatment around the question that any honest Christian at some point must confront himself with: “Why does the death of one Jewish man two thousand years ago matter to me now?” How is the gruesome death of a small-town Jewish peasant the climax upon which all of history turns? Leithart forces us to turn and look at what really happened and what Scripture says really happened. In the midst of the perceived power of this world, with all of its guns and missiles and might, what Christians proclaim about the centrality of Jesus is truly foolishness. Well yes, Paul replies, because it is the foolishness of God and not anything that human beings could possibly have dreamed. Leithart helps articulate this foolishness of God, the wisdom that is not of this world.
But the question persists: Is the Christian message even intelligible in the light of a crucified savior, Leithart asks. “If it is comprehensible at all, the death of a supposed Messiah is not immediately comprehensible as a saving act, though resurrection is certainly good news for the dead Messiah himself” (15).
And thus, the necessity of studying what really happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus and how it’s message must transform all of society. Because the cross is described in Scripture as the climax of all history, atonement theory must be fully comprehensive. Leithart says it like this: “A successful atonement theory has to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide an account of all human history. It has to be a theory of everything” (20). If a quote like that doesn’t get you going, I’m not sure what will. What’s remarkable about Leithart’s book is how he points us not to a theory, but to a Person, a Person who changed everything on a Friday.