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Book Review: A Community Called Atonement

Last year I reviewed Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman at great length. For as long as this blog is kept running, I want to do the same for one book each year. This year's review will be of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight. If you have any requests for next year's book, leave me a comment and we can have further discussion.

It's important to read the prologue of this book. Here McKnight lays out his major goal, to which he constantly refers throughout the rest of the book. He likens our atonement theories and metaphors to golf clubs. When you play golf you need more than one club if you're going to be successful, and the Bible uses more than one image to describe the atonement. We need to find a golf bag in which we can fit all of our atonement clubs and we need to know what the purpose of each club in that bag is (xiii). In the following pages, McKnight lays just that out.

McKnight begins with the claim that the atonement is the good news of the gospel, and that it explains how the gospel works (1). He also insists that atonement must make a difference in your life, in the way you live right now (1-2). Atonement brings reconciliation and healing, and extends beyond our relationship with God to our relationship with one another. Atonement theory is practical and, 'the gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create.' While, 'the kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach' (5). These are two key assumptions that drive much of what McKnight says throughout the book. Both our preaching and our communities need to reflect the fullness of what God has done through Christ in bringing atonement.

The discussion of atonement begins in the logical, but often overlooked place, with Jesus; more specifically with Jesus proclamation of and ushering in of the kingdom. McKnight's main thrust through this chapter is that, 'any atonement theory that is not an ecclesial theory of atonement is incomplete' (9 - emphasis original), because the saving work of God brings in a just society where we experience peace (10). The kingdom is the telos of the atonement (13). The bulk of this chapter deals with several key passages in Luke-Acts illustrating the centrality of those elements of Jesus kingdom teaching.

The kingdom isn't McKnight's only starting point. McKnight starts this chapter by emphasizing the obvious; where you start determines where you'll end. If you start with wrath, you'll end up with penal substitutionary atonement (15). Others pick other starting points and end up with equally narrow atonement theories. So, in this chapter, McKnight trots out three more starting points along with kingdom (the next will bring up another three), God, humanity, and sin. Drawing on the Eastern emphasis on periochoresis, McKnight stresses that atonement brings a fourfold reconciliation between us, images of God broken by sin, and God; one another; ourselves; and the cosmos (22). The biggest problem we face is that we've sinned against God, but we need to see the full scope of our needed restoration if we're to get our understanding of atonement right (23).

McKnight's final batch of three starting points are eternity, ecclesial community, and praxis. The core of this chapter can be summed up in this quote, 'Atonement is the work of God to create and ready his people for just these things: union with God and communion with others in a place of perfection, with a society of justice and peace and above all worship of the lamb of God on the throne' (27). Life here and now is supposed to be lived in light of this future reality, to be lived as if it really is true (25). Individuals benefit from atonement, but always in the context of a community (27). And the communities that God creates bring atonement, it is the task of the church to perform atonement (28-31).

Now that McKnight has given us a well-rounded picture of the different elements that need to be held together in our atonement theology, he moves onto addressing different atonement metaphors. The discussion begins with a discussion of metaphor and what it means to call atonement theories metaphors. He cites Vanhoozer,
any given theory of atonement is "not a set of timeless propositions, nor an expression of religious experience, nor grammatical rules for Christian speech and thought, but rather an imagination that corresponds to and continues the gospel by making good theological judgments about what to say and do in light of the reality of Jesus Christ" (36-7 emphasis McKnight's).
Another key point that McKnight makes is that we understand metaphors by indwelling them, not by dissecting them (37). The reason why metaphors are used is because they are so effective at pointing to another reality, to a reality beyond themselves. They're a lens that we look through to see the thing (38).

McKnight then goes on to evaluate penal substitution and its critics, offering three concerns with what he sees as distortions that come from some proponents of the theory. The two main points that he makes are these, we need to make sure we don't present God as being in conflict with himself as if his love and holiness opposed one another (41-2) and second that we need to recognize that it is one metaphor among others that Scripture gives us. '[A]dvocates of this theory run the risk of playing the game of golf with one club' (42). McKnight issues a challenge to those who oppose penal substitution as well, saying that they often caricaturize the theory (40).

The sixth chapter continues to extend some of his earlier discussion about the need to start at the right place to get the end result, in the process deepening his earlier discussion on humanity and sin. In what follows McKnight addresses the three key moments of the atonement; the incarnation, crucifixion (which is the central key moment), and the resurrection.

We will highlight how McKnight handles one of these themes. Since it's Christmas let's opt for 'incarnation,' which 'means identification for the sake of liberation' (55). Jesus becomes what we are and in the process creates a people around himself (57). This happens through our union with Christ. Union with Christ is central to McKnight's entire atonement theology. Wisdom, sanctification, redemption, and justification all flow to us because of our union with Christ (59-60). The incarnation is crucial for union with Christ to take place. The central passage for McKnight is Phil 2:5-11, the passage he calls, 'the most complete statement of the atoning work that we can find in the entire New Testament' (60). Here we see how Jesus entire life of selfless service atones for sinful people (60). It's an atonement that draws us into the very life of God and calls us to live in accordance with Jesus example (60).

The next three chapters discuss how four of the churches most important 'theologians' discussed atonement. Chapter 11 examines Jesus' understanding of his death, looking at the Last Supper. McKnight stresses that the Last Supper 'storified' Jesus death for his disciples (83). Jesus dies during Passover, not on Yom Kippur. That fact gives shape to our understanding of the atonement. "Jesus' act at the Last Supper declares that his death is atoning, that his blood is like the Passover blood, that his blood absorbs the judgment of God against sin and systemic violence, that his death will save and liberate his followers from their own sins, and that his death will create the new covenant community around him" (86).

Next, McKnight looks at Paul, sketching his doctrine of justification. Building off of the work of N.T. Wright, justification is defined as, 'the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham' (93 - emphasis original). In contrast to the Reformers, McKnight emphasizes that justification is not about how one gets into God's family. It simply is a declaration that this has taken place (93). Point (b) is critical to properly understanding justification. It helps us move beyond an individualistic understanding of what happens at justification. Additionally, it opens the door to justification being effective in the believer and communities now, having moral impact (97-8).

The last chapter in this section showcases Irenaeus and Athanasius. McKnight selects these theologians of the early church because of their emphasis on recpaitulation, which he considers to be the bag that holds the clubs. Christ recapitualtes, or sums up, Adam's life, Israel's life, and our own in both an exclusive sense (standing in our place doing what we cannot) and an inclusive sense, incorporating us into his life. Here McKnight works along lines similar to Michael Gorman, emphasizing theosis - a theory which contends that by our union with Christ we, while remaining distinct from God, participate in his very life (103).

In chapter fourteen McKnight moves to summary. His central theme is, 'identification for incorporation' (107). Jesus identifies with us and incorporate us into his death and resurrection (107). Identification grounds the atonement with the purpose of incorporating us (108-9). The rest of the atonement theories work out different pieces of this concept of identification for incorporation (110-4).

Unfortunately I have run out of space to provide but the briefest of summaries of the last major portion of the book. The title of the book is 'A Community Called Atonement,' meaning in part that atonement is something that the community does and brings. McKnight explores several different avenues under the heading of praxis, looking at a wide range of issues of worship, community, and external mission. These themes are looked at to help us see how we can both experience and bring atonement here and now.

Overall I was very pleased with McKnight's work. In many ways it brought clarity to my own thoughts on the subject. There were three aspects in particular that I thought were important. First, I think it's critical that we play with a full set of clubs. I have seen far too many Christians (both on the left and right) emphasize one aspect of the atonement to the neglect of the others. These have the effect of presenting an imbalanced portrait of God. I found McKnight's proposal, that we need to have more than one starting place for our discussion to be so helpful in guarding against that mistake. If, for example, you start your atonement theory at the fall then you're going to have a narrow understanding of the atonement. McKnight integrates themes and texts very, very well.

Second, I thought McKnight's discussion of justification was rich and broad. McKnight's view is very nuanced and helpfully develops N.T. Wright's work. It also was short, and that's a good thing. There's so much more to the atonement than justification. My only wish here was that it had been later in the book, after he had introduced the 'identification for incorporation concept' so that he could present it as an alternative formulation to double imputation.

Third, it is wonderful that one third of the book is devoted to matters of praxis. If we do not ultimately live as agents bringing atonement to the world, if we do not experience the effects of atonement now, and if we do not live in hope of the culmination of God's atoning work then the previous discussion does not matter. We need more scholars and theologians to write these kind of books. We need them to be written by scholars because we need to read the best work that has the most rigorous research behind it. We need practical books because it's too easy for many of us to make our theology a point for debate not a pointer for how to live.

I do have one criticism and one point that I would have liked to have seen developed more fully. I'll begin with the latter. In his discussion of resurrection, McKnight explains how God is at work creating a transnational people (72). The work of Christ erases distinctions that divide and puts everyone on an equal playing field before God. I felt McKnight's treatment of this topic was far too brief. It could be argued to be the central theme of several of Paul's most important letters (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians). It only gets about half of a page. A neglect of this theme permeates large swaths of the church and we needlessly create division among ourselves and claim superiority over others for a variety of reasons. Unity is at the heart of the gospel and the atonement. Unity is a matter of first priority. I would have liked further discussion here.

Also, as McKnight has noted in King Jesus Gospel, the gospel can't be equated with atonement. The gospel saves, but that does not mean that we should equate gospel and atonement as McKnight does on the opening page of the book (he discusses his shift from this approach in the King Jesus Gospel - see my review). The gospel is the story of Jesus. It includes his life (especially his public ministry), death, and resurrection. To be clear, McKnight's understanding of the gospel is far from transactional in this book, however he still defines the gospel too narrowly.

These criticisms are minor. I found A Community Called Atonement to be an excellent discussion of atonement that hits its target audience (pastors). It's neither too long and dense nor too short and superficial. A Community Called Atonement is theology come to life, as McKnight not only explains what atonement is but tells us how to live it. It is a timely call and challenge to all who have inadequate atonement theologies. Will we listen and bring atonement to this world?


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