Review: Delivered from the Elements of the World by Peter Leithart
I must confess. I have procrastinated reviewing Delivered from the Elements of the World. It’s not because it is a dull book; far from it. Rather, more than anything I’ve yet reviewed, I am daunted at the prospect of doing justice to this book’s vastness and creativity. Peter Leithart is known to be a singular, provocative and eloquent thinker, and Delivered from the Elements of the World is surely his magnum opus.
Put simply, Delivered from the Elements of the World is Leithart’s attempt to answer how Jesus’ death and resurrection changed the world. That, of course, is an incredibly vast question already, but Leithart uses “world” in a broad manner to include social, economic and political factors. Thus, he’s also asking how a Galilean’s death “[carried] a message of hope for the salvation of human society” (p14). For Leithart, the answer is found in the “elements”, which he understands as “the fundamental physics of every socioreligious, cultural-religious formation [that consist] of practices concerning holiness, purity and sacrifice” (p12). So how does Jesus’ death change the rules of purity and sacrifice inherent to all world religions? Delivered from the Elements of the World is a book on the atonement, but in widescreen.
For Leithart, a successful theory of the atonement must meet the following criteria:
- Historical plausibility. The first-century Jewish context cannot be ignored (sadly, it often has).
- Levitical. Jesus’ death must be congruent with and bring fulfillment to Levitical ritual.
- Evangelical. Atonement theology must arise naturally from within the Gospels.
- Pauline. It must also arise from Paul’s writings.
- Inevitable. Jesus must be the inevitable and natural response to the human condition (Luk 24:26)
- Fruitful. It must also explain the subsequent history of the church and the world, and show how it “worked”.
As an aside, this list reveals the narrowness of most works claiming to be comprehensive treatments of atonement. Though most ignore #5-6, sadly many also ignore #1-3! So often, theological frameworks distort or smother the the Biblical data.
Delivered from the Elements of the World
To achieve Leithart’s criteria, the book develops as follows:
Part 1 consists of five chapters. After the introduction, chapter 2 argues that “elementary principles of the world” refer to the purity laws of any society: “sacred space, purity rules, sacrifice and priesthood thus constitute the foundational reality of religious and social life in the ancient world, both Jewish and Gentile…and it is these that Paul says have now lost their force” (p40-41). Chapter 3 takes a surprising turn into a fictional narrative of an ancient Jew (I won’t spoil his identity) encountering and dialoguing with an Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek about their respective purity laws. Turning an otherwise tedious comparison of religions into a fascinating narrative, Leithart’s concern here is to imagine the all-consuming rulership that “elementary principles of the world” had in all religions. Chapter 4 begins the story in Genesis, where God created an independent people, set apart by their own elementary principles that contain antisarkic (“anti-flesh”) symbolism. It is here that God begins his “saving war against enslaving flesh” (p90). Chapter 5 explains, through a detailed treatment of Levitical law, how being under Torah is being under elementary principles, but of a kind that contain a “parodic, antifleshly pedagogy” (p91). Though an incomplete system “accommodated to the fleshly condition of the human race” (p92) that could not bring one back to Eden, Levitical law instructed Israel to trust in the Lord by rejecting flesh and awaiting the Messiah.
Part 2 has two chapters. Chapter 6 begins to explore how Jesus is the demonstration of God’s righteousness and that he fulfilled and transcended Levitical expectations. In fact, Jesus’ disciples began to live with the Spirit and without the elementary principles, “[t]hrough his Torah-keeping and teaching, Jesus was forming within the flesh of Israel a new Israel that no longer lives [according to the flesh]” (p143). Chapter 7 explores why Jesus had to die, and not simply tell His followers of another way of living. For Leithart, Christ’s death was the pinnacle of flesh’s self-condemnation and penal substitution (as found in the Gospels, no less).
Part 3 also has two chapters. Chapter 8 turns to justification. Here Leithart argues that justification is more than an “outworking of the cross in the lives of individuals or the church” but more fundamentally “a way of naming the event of the cross and resurrection” (p180). In other words, Jesus was the first one to receive justification (1 Tim 3:16) and all future justifications are based upon His. Justification itself is slightly redefined and expanded from being merely a “judgment of God in favor of a sinner” to “[in] itself an act of deliverance” (p181). For example, Jesus was justified in that God judged in His favor by delivering Him from death (Rom 4:25). Therefore, justification is more than a verdict, it’s a verdict that also delivers. Leithart coins the term “deliverdict” to notify this distinction. Chapter 9 develops the previous chapter to examine living free from the law and under the Spirit.
Part 4 concludes the book with four chapters, the first three “offer[ing] sketchy reflections on the theology of mission that flows out of the atonement theology developed in the rest of this book” (p218). Chapter 10 outlines what the “atonement implies about the aims, goals and means of missions” (p218). Missions is more than individual conversion, but an invitation for society to be ‘saved’ from the elementary principles that rule and divide them. Chapter 11 examines current religions through the light of the “elementary principles”, and how Christianity has fundamentally reshaped these religions even if they are not saved. Chapter 12 traces the ways in which the church has lost its witness by returning to living under the elements through divisions. Finally, chapter 13 retraces the entire book in one concluding chapter.
If summarizing this book was difficult (and wordy), how do we evaluate it? I must admit that I am a little in awe of this book. This is not because I find it entirely convincing at every point, but because its fusing of scope and detail is breathtaking. While wading through this, I constantly found myself thinking “why do I read lesser books?” Virtually every page contained at least one breathtaking “aha” or “if that’s true, then ___!” moment. The majority of points of exegetical detail are compelling and fascinating, perhaps most so in the treatment of Leviticus.
Leithart’s wide-lens vision feels traditionally Protestant and yet creative, taking some bold minority views. A few examples. He follows those who hold that “faith in Christ” should be translated “faithfulness of Christ”. Justification should be “deliverdict”. “Works of the Law” are not boundary markers, nor the doing of the law, but what the Law itself does (similar to “works of the flesh”). Insights from the New Perspective and Apocalyptic schools of Pauline theology are adopted. A lot of theology is read into the details of Levitical sacrifices. These ideas are interesting and many compelling, though I wonder if true, why the church was wrong for this long? Some of the ideas are so fresh that they appear untethered from church history.
It must be said that this book was truly enjoyable to read. This is due to the fresh ideas, the way that Leithart pulls together loose threads into a coherent whole, but perhaps mostly due to the fact that he’s an excellent writer. The narrative diversion in chapter 3 was a real highlight of creative scholarly writing. If only more books were this engaging!
As far as meeting his criteria, I believe Leithart has thoroughly succeeded, especially in #2-5. Whether he is right is another matter. I must admit that I am not well-read enough to opine on #6. I found Leithart’s ideas compelling but was less than entirely persuaded. I’ve already run out of space for deeper engagement, but Brad Littlejohn has offered more substantial appraisal and critique of Leithart’s arguments that is worth reading. Leithart has also replied to Littlejohn on his blog here and here.
In Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart offers a fresh and creative wide-lens view of the atonement that has in view not simply theology or exegesis, but also history and sociology. It is a wild ride, but is one of those special books that has the potential to truly reshape one’s thinking. One need not be convinced by his entire argument for this work to be helpful in finding homes for those odd puzzle pieces lying untouched. Delivered from the Elements of the World is both a thoroughly exciting work of exegetical theology and a pleasure to read.
Many thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of this book