Book Review

Lorraine Cavanagh, Making Sense of God's Love: Atonement and Redemption

by Mary Roe

from Signs of the Times, No. 43 - Oct 2011

Book cover I found this book to be something of a Curate's Egg. This is partly because it often falls between two stools: is it intended to be a theologically coherent account of how the crucifixion (and resurrection) of his son effected our redemption and our "at-one-ment" with God, while rejecting doctrines which propound retributive justice or a legal transaction, or is it an aid to devotional meditation on how God's loving, self-giving identification with humanity affects our daily lives as his redeemed people? The mingling of these two approaches forces the reader to switch from one mode of attention to another and the flow of ideas from author to reader is further impeded by sloppy syntax - the repeated misplacing of the word, "only" can initially obscure the meaning of many a seminal sentence. And it is perhaps unfortunate at this time that on page 10 the date of 9/11 is printed as 2002!

Before reading Making Sense of God's Love, I read John Stott's The Cross of Christ which presents the case for the traditional "penal substitution" doctrine, and despite the theory being unacceptable to many people including myself, this book is a coherent and persuasive interpretation which demands equally cogent alternative arguments. Sadly, despite its title, Mrs. Cavanagh's book doesn't meet the challenge. The one weakness in John Stott's book (to my liberal mind) is the confidence with which he professes to have intimate knowledge of what Stephen Hawking called "the mind of God." At first, I was congratulating Mrs. Cavanagh on her avoidance of this age-old trap for the theologian, but then, she, too, speaks of seeing things "from God's own perspective" and, elsewhere, to "the motivating force behind God's decision" (to allow his son to die.)

The best chapter in the book, in my opinion, is the second, which covers the nature of sin. This is very good and would stand alone as a help to both students and enquiring worshippers. It usefully sets out the distinction between "culpability" and "guilt", the alienating effect of feelings of shame, and we begin to see how these insights are incompatible with the image of God as punitive judge. The difference between "propitiation" and "expiation" is made clear and adds weight to the case. On the other hand, the author's use of the suffering and rescue of 33 miners trapped for two months in Chile as a paradigm of the cross and resurrection raises a host of questions and objections.

By the time I reached the final paragraph of Making Sense of God's Love, it seemed that it might be a good idea to read the book again, retrieving the many undoubted gems of insight into the mystery of God's love from among the unrewarding pebbles of explanation in which many of them are embedded and assemble them in a valuable leaflet for one's theology shelf. Then one might go through again, gathering the inspirational ideas and images, have them beautifully printed, laminated and made available for meditation in prayer corners. Either collection, in its appropriate context, might greatly help those who are seeking to "make sense of God's love."

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Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the Modern Church Council.