07 January 2008

Review: A Community Called Atonement

I offer the following review of Scot McKnight's interesting new book, A Community Called Atonement. I invite comments if I've been unfair in any way or overlooked any major strength or weakness in your mind. I'm still digesting the book and need all the help I can get.

Among our most helpful thinkers in current New Testament studies are those who have conscientiously bridged their NT expertise with other disciplines—scholars such as Richard Bauckham (with historiography), D. A. Carson (with cultural studies), and Anthony Thiselton (with hermeneutics). To this mix can be added Scot McKnight, bridging the gap between NT scholarship and the increasingly influential emerging church (EC). Already known to those familiar with the EC through his thickly-trafficked blog (from which I have personally profited numerous times), McKnight has provided what may be the most significant biblical and theological rationale to date for some of the distinct emphases of the EC, such as kingdom, community, and praxis. A Community Called Atonement is part of a new series entitled Living Theology edited by Tony Jones, national coordinator for Emergent. McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago.

The book is divided into four parts. Preceding these is an introductory chapter that sets the tone and gets the main themes to come out on the table, particularly (1) that atonement is not making the difference in the lives of Christians it ought to, and (2) that the reason for this lack of atonement-fueled transformation is the failure to incorporate all the metaphors for atonement into a coherent whole. The rest of the book, promises McKnight, will attempt just such a holistic enterprise.

Part One lays the foundation for the book, beginning (ch. 2) with a discussion of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, which is “the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life” (9). McKnight skims through Luke-Acts to explicate what he calls what he calls “the Lukan thread,” demonstrating “that atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans—in all directions—so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life. Any theory of atonement that is not an ecclesial theory of the atonement is inadequate” (9, emphasis original). Chapters three and four add six more starting points to the theme of kingdom, three in each chapter. Chapter three addresses the perichoretic union of God in the Trinity, highlighting the relationality of this union into which believers are drawn; introduces the book’s pervasive metaphor for sinners, that of “cracked Eikons,” a critical point of which is that as Eikons (images) of God humans are co-missional beings with God; and describes sin as “hyperrelational” since it disrupts not only humanity’s relationship to God but also to oneself, others, and the world. Chapter four’s final three foundation stones are eternity, which is described in strictly corporate terms; community, delineated in the three societies of Israel, kingdom, and church; and human performance or praxis as integrally connected to God’s role in atonement.

Having laid a seven-step foundation, McKnight moves on in Part Two to discuss atonement itself. Chapter five explores the role of metaphor in exegeting atonement, arguing for a more rhetorically sensitive approach to the function of metaphors on the way to making the larger point that one metaphor must not trump all others in our understanding of atonement. Penal substitution provides an example of this danger. In chapter six McKnight issues a call for humility, recognizing not only that all of us are culturally located but also that the “mind-numbing complexity of sin” makes atonement difficult to grasp (48). Chapter seven draws on Paul and Luther to affirm that “[t]he cross is the center of the atonement” (51). Chapter eight then illumines the atoning function of the incarnation through a discussion of various biblical texts, after which the author makes connections between the incarnation and atonement by brief looks at the themes of Jesus as the perfect Eikon, Jesus as the second Adam, and union with Christ. Chapter nine returns to the cross to draw on Mark and Paul in suggesting that the cross “is the work of God to restore cracked Eikons to union with God and communion with others for a missional life focused on others and the world” (61). It is in this chapter that McKnight comments on the appropriateness of speaking of God’s wrath. Chapter ten closes out Part Two by addressing Easter and Pentecost and arguing that the resurrection is no less crucial to atonement than the crucifixion.

At this point McKnight turns to consider the way in which the images for atonement in the New Testament are fundamentally stories. The stories of Jesus, Paul, and two early theologians therefore form Part Three. Chapter eleven explores Jesus’ own understanding of his death, arguing that he conceived it as a second Passover and a second Exodus. In an interesting twist it is queried why Jesus did not choose Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, if he saw his own death as one primarily of atonement. McKnight proposes that Passover was a more appropriate way for Jesus to portray his death as “an act of liberation from Rome and Israel’s unjust leaders,” though it is unclear precisely how this fits with a statement a few lines later that Jesus’ death liberates “his people from their sins” (86). Chapter twelve dives headfirst into swirling debates regarding justification, drawing on N. T. Wright and pushing for an accounting of justification that transcends both individualism and mere forensic categories. Athanasius and Irenaeus are then brought in (ch. 13) as witnesses to McKnight’s proposal of the most full-orbed understanding of the atonement—that of recapitulation. In chapter fourteen we finally come to McKnight’s specific attempt to capture all the relevant metaphors of the atonement in one phrase: “identification for incorporation” (107). That is, Jesus identifies with humans by becoming one of them, and he incorporates humans into his own victory over death and the devil. The author then runs through the various metaphors for atonement—recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation, and penal substitution—and suggests that each of these fits comfortably under the larger umbrella “identification for incorporation.”

Part Four concludes the book by suggesting various avenues in which this understanding of atonement gets lived out. Chapter fifteen explains that believers embody and extend God’s atoning work by engaging in missional love that seeks the holistic welfare of the social context in which we live. Justice is the focus of chapter sixteen, and is reworked to denote systemic justice that is restorative and relational “in the here and now” (132) rather than merely divine reprisal. Chapter seventeen fleshes out what it means to be “missional.” Drawing on Brian McLaren, McKnight explains that just as God’s mission is to seek out and restore the whole person, so this mission forms the sacred summons of the Christian. In a helpfully articulated distinction, we are to be missional (going into the world) rather than “attractional” (waiting for the world to come to us). Chapter eighteen addresses the role of Scripture in atonement, provocatively declaring that “some Christians . . . ascribe too much to the Bible” when they should be starting with and centering on the Trinity (143). Scripture itself, moreover, is missional, “designed by God to work its story into persons of God so that they may become doers of the good” (147). Finally, chapter nineteen explores the atoning significance of prayer and the sacraments.

Perhaps a few lines from the middle of the book contain the best self-described summary of the book: “This book is dedicated to deconstructing one-sided theories of the atonement. It is also dedicated to demonstrating that the cross is inseparable from the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the ecclesial focus of the work of God. And this book is dedicated to deconstructing simplistic, individualistic theories of the atonement” (61).

A Community Called Atonement possesses several notable strengths, regarding both style and content. Stylistically, McKnight has written a clear and accessible book that refuses to make thoughtful reflection and a fast-moving pace mutually exclusive. The book’s brevity and clarity will encourage college students to work through it, while its fresh yet theologically responsible recasting of core doctrinal categories will equally appeal to senior scholars. Second—and this can hardly be overemphasized—McKnight has worked constructively rather than in theological attack mode. He has written in love. Both advocates of and objectors to the EC can learn from this example. Indeed, if 1 Corinthians 13 is more than a wedding text, the importance of this point outweighs even issues of content, whether of strengths or weaknesses.

A third strength, moving to analysis of content, is the book’s inclusive integration of multiple perspectives on the atonement. Too often advocates of a particular view of the atonement neglect the full-orbed balance McKnight seeks to cultivate. Fourth, the book’s challenge for the Church to actively seek out unbelievers rather than passively (and na├»vely) hope unbelievers seek out the Church remains a timely challenge to evangelicals. (Getting Christians out into the world, of course, does not address the reciprocal problem of how to get the world out of the Christians.) The book’s focus on joining God in his quest to seek out broken-yet-divinely-imaged people, helping to restore them in all the various anthropological dimensions, continues to be an urgent reminder of what is an undeniably central biblical imperative. Christian witness must not be limited to the dichotomous care for the “soul” while neglecting physical and material needs. Fifth, the book’s consistent emphasis on union with Christ as a soteriologically comprehensive category (59-60, 109-10) is a vital and urgently needed focus in light of current NT discussions (not least those regarding justification). Sixth, McKnight’s emphasis on the corporate nature of the church and the way God seeks to create a worshipping community through atonement is thoroughly appropriate in the individualized culture in which we Westerners live and to which so many recent writers are currently pointing.

I bless God for Scot McKnight. We are, in the most important sense, on the same team. Weaknesses, nonetheless, should also be noted. Indeed, some of this book’s strengths are its weaknesses. We have just noted, for example, that McKnight extols the corporate nature of atonement. This is at the heart of the book and the point of its title. Yet at times he appears to fall into the common trap of failing to appreciate the complementary truth that the transformation of individuals, while neither possible nor consummated apart from ecclesial incorporation, is foundational to the transformation of the community. The constant assertions that “the atonement cannot be restricted to saving individuals” and that “atonement is designed to create . . . community” (75) make an important point, yet may paint a portrait as one-sided as the one being replaced. If some have neglected the corporate aspects of atonement, others in responding have neglected the individual. Is it biblically accurate, for instance, to depict eternity as “so corporate that individuals simply are unrecognized” (26, emphasis original)?

Second, McKnight fuzzies the lines between atonement proper and its effects, making theologically conscientious reading produce, if not outright objection, at least head-scratching puzzlement. To be sure, one must not allow distinction between atonement and its results to become separation—a real problem indeed. Yet McKnight goes too far the other way when he says, for example, “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, emphasis original). McKnight elsewhere adds that reading Scripture (148), partaking of the Lord’s Supper (154), and prayer (154) are all atoning. While we appreciate the desire to motivate Christians to live out the atonement they themselves have professedly experienced, such statements come perilously close to suggesting that it is we who do what must only be attributed to the Triune God. McKnight seems to widen the communicative content of atonement to such an extent that one is not sure what it means beyond a generic sense of “edification” or “blessing.” At numerous points I wondered why the book is labeled A Community Called Atonement and not, say, A Community Called Blessing. McKnight’s explication of the “Lukan thread” compounds one’s puzzlement as he skips over the very passages that are arguably most germane to a discussion of atonement—namely, Passion Week in Luke and pivotal sermons in Acts (2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38).

Third, McKnight’s image of the golfer and his various clubs in depicting the different metaphors for the atonement is both effective and misleading. Throughout the book this image is employed to communicate that we must not utilize only one club in the bag to the exclusion of the others. Yet while this analogy makes McKnight’s point that multiple perspectives on the atonement must be recognized, it prevents the nuance needed in grasping the biblical message concerning atonement. For what if a single club (penal substitution? sacrifice?) is not merely one club among equals but that which allows all the clubs to be effectually used? Is it possible to be reconciled to one another or to be freed from the cosmic forces of the world without a prior, more fundamental reconciliation, in which sin is decisively, if not finally, dealt with? Yet the argument made is that we need to give all aspects of atonement an equal place at the table. We appreciate the impulse to expose the theological tunnel vision concerning atonement that views it only as concerning the individual and God; yet might not one element nonetheless remain the fundamental one, rather than one “golf club” among many? Perhaps, then, we would need a more nuanced analogy. Perhaps medicine would do: what if an individual suffering from a host of various maladies, daily taking various corresponding meds, is required at the start of each day to ingest a pill that activates all the others? Or could the various theories of the atonement can be likened to doors lining a hallway which nevertheless contains one main door leading into the hallway itself and thus foundational to accessing the other doors? Either of these images would indicate both that we must not restrict ourselves to a single metaphor—the other pills must be taken, the other doors must be opened—and that one metaphor is foundational to the others.

Despite these reservations, A Community Called Atonement is an accessible and stimulating study that is worthy of reflection and will doubtless ignite invigorating and fruitful discussion. Tony Jones writes of the volumes of this series that “they’ll raise as many questions as they answer” (ix). The series’ inaugural installation lives up to his prediction. Whether this is goal-worthy, which appears to be Jones’ assumption (after all, it will “promote a way of doing theology—one that is conversational, collegial, and winsome”), is less certain. The best trait of the EC is its insistence on proactively living out Jesus’ kingdom vision of caring for the world in ways both immaterial and material, and the main weakness of the EC is unnecessarily fuzzying biblically-generated doctrine on its way to commending such a way of life. This book exhibits both. Having registered a few concerns, however, it is my sincere hope that the daily life outlined by McKnight—marked not only by reconciliation with God but also practical love for and service toward fellow Eikons—becomes increasingly embodied in my own life and in that of the twenty-first century Church.


tony said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, Dane.

Scot McKnight said...


This is a good, accurate, and generous review and your critique is stuff worth thinking about.

On the critique: I don't think I've overdone the corporate, at least I didn't try to. I tried to keep an individual/corporate balance. Both/and.

I'm not sure why you suggest "blessing." The book could have been called "A Community called Reconciliation" since I do say the whole book is an exposition of 2 Cor 5:18 -- reconciliation. I'm using "atonement" as it has been used in the history of theology for a bigger concept.

But, the point about effects/affects and act is a good one and this thought occurred to me throughout as I wrote this stuff up. I regularly said this wideness has been part of the atonement discussion since Irenaeus, so I went with it. But, it's a fair point and the distinctions between act and effects need to be maintained. In part, that is my point in the "Moments of atonement" discussion.

On the analogy ... I hoped it wasn't pressed to do too much. (Your idea of a club that makes the others work, of course, mixes metaphors for there is no such thing in golf.) I think each image does deal with sin, in differing ways, but each remedies the sin problem. The problem is sin; atonement can only deal with sin if it is biblical.

Anyway, you've done me fairly and I appreciate it.

May your tribe increase.

ErinOrtlund said...

Sounds like a book I'd like to read. I'm starting a book list--I should scroll back through your blog and see what else I should add.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the gracious response, Dr. McKnight. Helpful and encouraging.

I see what you mean re: reconciliation. I confess it still seems to me more appropriate to use a term like "blessing" if we're trying to communicate something both that we experience with God and that we then pass on to others, whereas reconciliation and atonement seem to refer mainly to the former (though we do of course invite others into that atonement). I'll keep thinking about it.

You're right about mixing metaphors, and the golfing analogy does make a vital point (i.e. don't overly focus on one persp. on atonement). I stubbornly think, however, that the various perspectives on the atonement are not as equally weighted as the analogy implies; hence my effort to suggest another image.

I'm grateful to have read this book; I was personally convicted at several points. Blessings on your continued work.

Eric said...

Hi Dane -

Thanks for your superb review; I really appreciate your hard work on this. I'm glad to see you affirming that we need a multi-dimensional approach to atonement, without leveling all distinctions between these dimensions. I think atonement in part means that Christ triumphs over the "powers and principalities," but I'd be uncomfortable putting this on the same level as substitutionary sacrifice (since I don't think the Bible does).

I appreciate also your raising a red flag about calling prayer and whatnot "atoning" - it may be redemptive, under God's providence, but it's not quite atoning (in my opinion).

Thanks very much for your work . . .

Dane Ortlund said...

E - could not agree more, w/ everything you said. Thanks for the encouragement.

Ray Ortlund said...

I just love my family.

Scot McKnight said...


Is this Eric Ortlund?

Anyway, what if "atoning" is understood as "reconciling" and not just as "sin expiating"? That is how I define "atoning" anyway -- and take 2 Cor 5:18 as the model of the whole book.

Hello Ray.

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Karin said...

I really appreciate this review. I just finished reading the book for a class I am taking and need to write a book assessment. WHile there are many things in the book that I agree with, there are many concerns that I was having in response and was finding difficult to put into words. The concerns that you raised were the same ones that I had. Namely the fuzziness between what is the atonement and what is a result of the atonement. Now I can write the paper...Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My name is Aaron, and I just finished reading the book for a class at Fuller. It seems that McKnight (dare I say Scotty) would underscore his whole argument that we as Christians participate as agents of atonement by bringing into the discussion John 20:22-23. Was this avoided consciously? Great book overall, thanks Scotty.