Reviewed by Shawn J. Wilhite
Such questions, like “for whom did Christ die?” seem to be systematic question, typically asked from post-Reformation interpreters. Jarvis Williams successfully argues that this issue can be traced back to the early Christian church. For Whom Did Christ Die? interacts with Old Testament, Early Judaism (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls), New Testament, Apostolic Fathers, and some Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation texts to answer this one question. It is with great acclaim that I recommend Williams’ book, for who can simultaneously engage a plethora of primary text material and bring exegetical and expositional rigor to bear on a single research question?
Thesis and Overview
Williams argues, according to Paul, “Jesus died exclusively for all elect Jews and Gentiles to achieve their salvation” (p.1). In order to prove his thesis, Williams sets out to “offer a detailed, exegetical investigation of selected texts in Paul and in early Judaism that shed light on Paul’s view of the extent of Jesus’ death” (p.1). Although many books and sources have asked a similar question, this present book is unique. Systematic theology and philosophical theology have sought to answer this question, yet they potentially lack exegetical rigor of such widespread primary source material. So, Williams sets out to answer this research question on the basis of detailed exegetical analysis and an overwhelming amount of primary source material (OT, Early Judaism, and NT).
The argument of the book is slowly developed over three chapters. In Chapter 2 (“Humanity’s Spiritual Plight in Paul’s Anthropology”), Williams describes the problem of humanity as under sin as a result of Adam’s transgression. He carefully exegetes Romans 1–7 – with a helpful analysis of Rom 5:12–21 – and Gal 3–4. Torah worsened man’s condition, and as a result of Adam’s sin, humanity is under the power of sin and completely unable to respond by faith to God’s salvation in Christ (p.103–4). Chapter 3 (“Divine and Human Agency in Paul’s Soteriology”) engages the idea of agency in soteriology. Williams overwhelms the reader with primary source material from the Old Testament, Early Judaism (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls), and Pauline literature to show that “in Paul’s soteriology, divine agency surrounds human agency” (p.188). Therefore, the consequences of transgression require the initial divine agency to cause humans to respond. Last, Williams argues, in chapter 4 (“The Purpose of Jesus’ Death in Paul’s Atonement-Theology”), that Jesus’ death “actually accomplished soteriological benefits for those for whom he died” (p.215). Paul’s atonement-theology is continuous with Lev 16 and 2, 4 Maccabees by presenting a single figure to die on behalf of and accomplish soteriological benefits for a believing, elect community.
For Whom Did Christ Die? provides a valuable exegetical base for theological and philosophical answers to atonement questions. Williams’ text is a valuable read. First, the amount of texts and primary sources used throughout this book is overwhelming. Text after text, source after source, passage after passage pepper every turn of the page. The scripture and primary text index is thirty pages and is three columns per page (p.236–66). When reading Williams’ textual and syntactical discussion, readers will be overwhelmed by the supporting data. If readers quibble over a handful of interpretations, they still need to respond to the rest of the primary source data. Second, each chapter demonstrates exegetical and syntactical rigor. According to Williams, For Whom Did Christ Die? “is the only monograph that concerns itself exclusively with arguing in favor of particular atonement from the Pauline letters by means of exegetical rigor” (p.2). I, moreover, would add expositional rigor and breadth of primary source material. Williams slowly engages the Greek text of Pauline literature and comprehensively argues for his thesis. Third, Williams is attuned to biblical scholarship. Readers can read this text one of two ways. Either, they can only read the body of the text, and in doing so, they will hear an exegetical and expositional argument. Or, readers can be cognizant of his footnotes, and place Williams’ argument in an on-going dialogue within scholarship.
Nevertheless, I do find flaws within Williams’ work. First, chapter introductions and conclusions could be more expressive. Because Williams is so focused, his introductions introduce the chapter’s thesis, brief comments on methodology, and list of broader texts. His conclusion restates the thesis and brief comments on how the thesis was proven. It would be helpful for Williams to make exegetical, theological, and possibly, philosophical connections. Moreover, it would be helpful to hear “so what?” implications. Second, background texts for “The Purpose and Benefits of Jesus’ Death in Paul’s Atonement-Theology” (ch. 4) are comparatively lacking. Chapter 2 and 3 set a standard for presenting an overwhelming amount of OT and Early Judaism texts. Chapter 4, however, only engages Lev 16, 2 Macc. 5:1–8:5, 4 Macc. 6:28–29, and 4 Macc. 17:21–22 to prepare the reader of Paul. Admittedly, Williams says, “To defend these points, because of limited space, I investigate only” the aforementioned texts (p.189). Because the amount of evidence in chapter 3 is so overwhelming in favor of Williams’ argument, it could be shortened to allow for more space in chapter 4.
An area for further research, then, would be to assume the methodological and exegetical rigor, and apply a nuanced question. Students of Early Judaism and Pauline theology could begin by asking, “Why did Christ die?” This different research question can be joined with Williams’ thesis and answer broader questions such as the effect of the death of Christ upon the Cosmos (e.g. Rom 8:18–25), relationship to covenant, and more.
For any pastor or student interested in Early Judaism, Pauline theology, or atonement questions, I highly recommend them to reference frequently For Whom Did Christ Die? Moreover, this book, and similar biblical studies books, ought to inform systematicians and theologians for the formation of theology. Theologians should reference this biblical studies book earlier in their systematic and philosophical projects. Although Williams appears to ask a systematic theology question, this is a biblical studies book, filled with exegesis and primary source interaction. Upon finishing this book, the extent of the atonement is overwhelming limited in scope as found in OT theology, Early Judaism, and Pauline theology and Williams has helpfully clarified this question.
Shawn J. Wilhite is a PhD Candidate in New Testament at Southern Seminary
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For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent Of The Atonement In Paul's Theology