Book Review: Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement

Review of Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement

(Abingdon Press, 2007). £9.99

by Andrew Goddard

Photo of Andrew GoddardThere can be little doubt that the cross and the doctrine of the atonement are close to the heart of evangelical identity. Sadly, as most recently evident in Pierced for our Transgressions and reactions to it, this means they can also become a potential area of conflict and division among evangelicals. There have recently been a number of important books in this area such as Steve Holmes’ The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History and Howard Marshall’s Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and humanity, both from Paternoster. I have to confess those are still on my ‘to read’ pile as I found that once I started Scot McKnight’s new book, A Community Called Atonement, it was very hard to put down. In a very short space – 19 concise chapters covering 156 pages – McKnight presents a stimulating, challenging, biblical, theological, missional and practical reflection on the meaning and significance of the cross and God’s work of atonement. McKnight writes as both a leading biblical scholar (his book Jesus and His Death appeared in 2005) and a key figure in the emerging church movement with the influential blog.

After a short introduction, the book falls into four parts. The first – Atonement and Convergence: Where to Begin? – sets atonement in the context of Jesus and the kingdom and then the biblical story of the Trinitarian God, us humans as his image, and the reality of being cracked Eikons. Here he reminds us that in relation to atonement theory – ‘the way we define the problem shapes the way we define the solution. At times the problem is the problem’ (22). Then, after crucially painting this big picture as the context for thinking about atonement we are shown how other areas must also be brought into any proper theology of atonement – eternity (‘Any atonement theory that thinks exclusively of the earth is inadequate, just as any theory that shifts to thinking too much of eternity is also inadequate’ (27)), the ecclesial community, and our praxis. In a claim central to the book he argues that

atonement is not just something done to us and for us, it is something we participate in – in this world, in the here and now. It is not just something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei. (30-31).

Having put all these pieces on the table, part two is – Atonement and Image: With Which Image? This begins by looking at ‘metaphor and mechanics’ and an illustration which recurs throughout the book and which I found particularly helpful – whether we play golf with one club (‘and shape everything else in light of it or avoid anything that doesn’t quite fit’ (35)) or use all the clubs in the bag. In the light of this chapter five offers a helpful discussion of penal substitution - its strengths and its critics - that concludes that ‘penal substitution theorists could help us all out if they would baptize their theory into the larger redemptive grace of God more adequately’ (43) before saying ‘I hope to do just that in what follows’. Part of what such an approach requires is humility – the subject of chapter six which returns to the complexities of what it means to be human and what sin is before noting the five big metaphors for atonement - incorporation, ransom or liberation, satisfaction, moral influence and penal substitution – and acknowledging that ‘questions about human nature, sin, and atonement are intertwined, forcing us at times to mix our metaphors…’ (49). Here too we are reminded that we can think of atonement at the ‘generic level’ but

If you begin with a Mexican American female immigrant and if you speak of sin as the fear of trusting God in order to become what God made her to be in Christ, you just might discover that atonement is liberation from oppression that is accomplished by being incorporated into Christ and empowered by the Spirit and connected to the fellowship of the local church (49).

It is these real-life people and situations that McKnight reminds us must be part of our thinking and preaching and living the atonement:

What does atonement mean for the young girl who grew up in a good home with good parents and good siblings and good friends, but who somehow wanders away from all that goodness? Who, after a decade or so of wandering and a failed marriage and now a kid perched on each hip, returns home and discovers that a life lived outside the good graces of God and love brings intense guilt and wants forgiveness? What does atonement mean for her? Which theory of atonement will work for her?....What does atonement mean for a white male suburban kid whose parents are wealthy, whose needs have been met, whose path is straight and flat and heading right back to the suburbs, where he will create a suburban cycle of comfort?...We ought to be arguing that sin is complex enough and the atonement big enough that each person needs encouragement to find atonement in Jesus Christ (49).

The next four chapters then examine ‘atoning moments’ in the story about created Eikons who are now cracked and in conflict and need healing in relation to God, themselves, one other, and the world. McKnight begins with the question of the centrality of the cross through a brief study of Paul and Luther. He then examines the incarnation as God’s identification with us and concludes that ‘A genuinely biblical atonement is incarnational as it sets the stage now for what happens in the cross’ (60). That is the subject of chapter 9 which looks at Mark’s gospel, Paul (especially Rom 3.21ff) and the questions of wrath and justification to argue that

We see the achievement of the cross in three expressions: Jesus dies ‘with us’ – entering into our evil and our sin and our suffering to subvert it and create a new way; Jesus dies ‘instead of us’ – he enters into our sin, our wrath, and our death; and Jesus dies ‘for us’ – his death forgives our sin, ‘declares us right’, absorbs the wrath of God against us, and creates new life where there was once only death (69).

Then, in what will surprise many (who ‘choose to leave the resurrection and Pentecost clubs at home when playing the atonement game. The bag is incomplete until both are carried’ (70)) he turns to Easter – resurrection, justification and new creation - and Pentecost which ‘makes things right by creating the new covenant, filling all with the Spirit, and creating the ecclesial community and enabling it to live in love with one another’ (77).

Before turning to synthesise these moments and metaphors, McKnight points out that ‘the images of atonement in the New Testament are not systematic theologies but stories’ (78) and so Part Three is entitled ‘Atonement as Story: Whose Story?’. It begins with Jesus and Passover – a story of liberation and redemption – and then turns to Paul’s courtroom imagery and the individual, ecclesial and soteriological story of justification where he draws on New Perspective thinking to go beyond individualism, judicialization and reductionism. Chapter 13 then briefly introduces Irenaeus and Athanasius and the idea of recapitulation. The final chapter of this part then asks ‘Which is the Fairest of Them All?’ and proposes ‘a bag that can hold all the metaphorical clubs’: Atonement as identification for incorporation. He then shows how this embraces all the models of atonement – recapitulation, ransom/Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation and penal substitution.

The final five chapters are headed ‘Atonement as Praxis: Who Does Atonement?’ and are based on the conviction that we must ‘explore atonement not only as the act of God but, as is the case with all emerging theology, as something we are invited to perform with God in this world. Atonement is praxis’ (114). Or, ‘atonement is something done not only by God for us but also something we do with God for others’ (115). In fact the title of each chapter speaks of ‘missional praxis’ as in turn he looks at atonement in relation to fellowship, justice, the mission Dei, the story of the Word (with some fascinating discussion of Scripture’s place in the church) and the sacraments and prayer. Inevitably some of these are better than others and all could be a book in their own right but McKnight gives a good taste of what church should be like if we are seriously evangelical and focussed on the cross and atonement.

It is amazing how much is packed so accessibly into such a small space in this book and the bite-size nature of most chapters means it is a book which can be read in short bursts, each of which will give much to think about, pray through, and act upon. Of course, the book is not perfect. Among my various concerns I’d highlight two. First, there is interestingly hardly any mention of the metaphor of sacrifice (which does not appear in the index) and although he lists Mark Heim’s challenging Saved From Sacrifice in his short bibliographic note he does not engage at all with its thesis or the work of Rene Girard which Heim so powerfully develops. Similarly, the increasingly contentious question of violence and the atonement gets relatively little attention despite the inclusion of Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement in the same bibliography and the statement that Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality and the Cross is ‘the best theology of the atonement we have to date’ (39). Given the importance of this question both in contemporary theology including evangelical theology (see most recently the essays in the volume edited by John Sanders, Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation) and also for mission today that is a sad omission.

My second concern is potentially much more significant and relates to the book’s central question as highlighted on the back cover – ‘Can atonement be a way of life?’. For me, one of the book’s great strengths is the way it prevents atonement becoming a dry, abstract, distant theory with little or no obvious relevance to our life and mission. However, I still find myself uneasy with statements such as those quoted above that atonement is something we do with God for others. It may just be a matter of choice of words – at times he seems to mean by atonement things like ‘healing’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘liberation’. However, in connecting the doctrine of atonement so powerfully to ecclesial practice, the question is raised as to whether McKnight is in danger of losing the importance of the ‘once-for-all-ness’ and completed nature of Christ’s atoning work. The Reformers of course saw that truth to be challenged by medieval Roman Catholic (interestingly, given my first comment, sacrificial) understandings of the Mass but other important and good human actions can also very easily claim more for themselves than they should and become detached from the prior, generative and determinative work of God in Christ and by the Spirit. Although McKnight does not himself slip over into this error I am not sure the book has established the necessary safeguards clearly enough in order to prevent others - who will, I hope, read and put into practice its teaching – from falling into that trap.

Despite these and other failings the book is a ‘must read’ for evangelicals, especially church leaders, and if this first volume is anything to go by then the Living Theology series in which it appears will be a major resource that lives up to its goal of producing books ‘to be useful in church small groups and seminary classrooms and Emergent Village cohorts’ and which promotes ‘a way of doing theology’ that is also, I believe, close to the heart of Fulcrum’s vision for evangelical Anglican theology – ‘conversational, collegial and winsome. Those of us who are involved in this series hold our own convictions, but we do so with enough humility to let contrary opinions shape us, too’ (ix).

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