A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology

McKnight, Scott. A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. 51yjoWk9tRL

Book Summary:

In this book McKnight unpacks different views on atonement with the goal of understanding the value of each theory by depicting the roles of atonement’s numerous biblical images that play out the fulsomeness of the redemptive work of God. McKnight holds many atonement theories in tension and maintains that atonement cannot be reduced to one theory. His controlling metaphor is that of a golf game where there are many clubs for different shots, so does each theory of the atonement is better suited to some context than others, requiring us to understand the value of each club. McKnight believes that identification for incorporation is the most important motif of the atonement.

In the introductory chapter McKnight explains how the atonement is the good news of Christianity, yet, he is asserting that atonement is not making any tangible difference in the lives of Christian people it ought to. He argues 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 four parts that make up the rest of the book attempt just such a holistic enterprise.

In part one McKnight discusses the teaching on God’s kingdom throughout Luke-Acts, defining the kingdom as the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life. This society centers first on the Trinity, and moves to outline the restoration of humanity in four directions: toward God, self, others, and the cosmos. This combines both objective and subjective elements where atonement spools from the objective act of what God does for us into the subjective fresh and ongoing acts by God’s people. Thus the focus of Christ’s work must be understood as ecclesial. Because God is a community of Three-in-One, God’s work is always relational and community-focused. For McKnight any theory of atonement that is not ecclesial is inadequate.

McKnight, then, addresses the perichoretic union of God in the Trinity, highlighting the relationality of this union into which believers are drawn. According to McKnight, humans are “cracked Eikons” that Christ’s atonement restores. This restoration is not narrowly focused on individuals; rather, it transforms all of life in the context of community (the ecclesia, the church). As Eikons (images) of God, humans are co-missional beings with God. Furthermore, McKnight examines the basic problem of sin and its effects on people, describing it as “hyperrelational” because it disrupts not only humanity’s relationship to God but also to oneself, others, and the world. McKnight concludes this part by describing eternity in strictly corporate terms, delineating community in the three societies of Israel, kingdom, and church, and showing how human praxis is integrally connected to God’s role in atonement.

In part two McKnight examines some common metaphors for atonement, defending the appropriateness of these metaphors. For McKnight, the effect of seeing metaphor as possibility is that metaphors are not in need of decoding or unpacking but of indwelling. Arguing for a rhetorical approach to the function of metaphors, McKnight recognizes the natural limits of each metaphor in adequately summarizing and encompassing all of the biblical images of atonement and keeping them in balance. Penal substitution provides an example of this danger. Thus McKnight asserts that every image of atonement must be considered and used appropriately when working out the implications and meaning of God’s work. Therefore, he identifies four “moments” that inform atonement theology and must work together in any comprehensive theory of atonement: the incarnation, death, resurrection of Christ, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. McKnight affirms that the cross is the center of the atonement, pointing to the atoning function of the incarnation and making connections between the incarnation and atonement by examining the themes of Jesus as the perfect Eikon, Jesus as the second Adam, and union with Christ. McKnight suggests that the cross is the work of God to restore cracked Eikons to union with him and communion with others for a missional life focused on others and the world.

In part three McKnight unpacks atonement stories by surveying Christ’s death in the context of Passover, Paul’s notion of justification, and as understood by Irenaeus and Athanasius. Discussing the Last Supper, McKnight shows how Christ conceived his own death as a second Passover. McKnight proposes that Passover was a more appropriate way than Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, for Jesus to portray his death as an act of liberation from Rome and Israel’s unjust leaders. It is unclear precisely how this fits with McKnight’s statement later that Christ’s death liberates his people from their sins. Relying primarily on N.T. Wright, McKnight pushes for an accounting of justification that transcends both individual and forensic categories and argues that Christ fully identifies with humanity and incorporates humanity in his death for liberation from sin. This means that Jesus died with, for, and instead of humanity. McKnight summarizes justification as the restoration of the relationship between humans and God that results in righteousness. The foundation of this restoration is being “in Christ.” Righteousness is not just a declaration but a reality that is embodied in relationships and behaviors. McKnight proposes recapitulation as the most full-orbed understanding of the atonement found in Irenaeus and Athanasius. He captures all the relevant metaphors of the atonement in one phrase: “identification for incorporation.” That is Christ’s act of atonement has a dual focus in light of the enormity of the problem with cracked Eikons: Jesus identifies with humans by becoming one of them in order to remove sin and incorporates humans into his own victory over death and the devil to liberate them so that they can form the new community where God’s will is realized. McKnight reviews the various atonement metaphors including recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, representation, and penal substitution and suggests that each of these fits accurately under the larger notion of “identification for incorporation.”

In part four McKnight describes atonement in terms of practicing fellowship, justice, and mission, being shaped by the Word and in the church’s practices of baptism, Eucharist, and prayer. Drawing from Wesleyan theology, McKnight suggests that atonement should bear practical fruit in the lives of Christians as believers embody and extend God’s atoning work by engaging in missional love that seeks the holistic welfare of the community in which they live. Pushing it further, McKnight argues that atonement is not only something that God does for us but is also something we do for others. For McKnight, the central question of missional praxis is this: “How can we help?” Addressing the role of Scripture in atonement, McKnight declares that some Christians ascribe too much to the Bible when they should be starting with and centering on the Trinity. Scripture itself is missional, designed by God to work its story into persons of God so that they may become doers of the good. Finally, McKnight explores the atoning significance of the sacraments and prayer.

Critical Assessment:

McKnight’s work is a good introduction to an emerging church doctrine of atonement, having taken numerous biblical and historical resources of the Christian faith and applied them in an emerging church context. McKnight deconstructs simplistic, individualistic, one-sided theories of the atonement. He offers a fresh look at the atonement that takes into consideration the different images and metaphors that the Bible presents for the finished atoning work of Christ on the cross, encouraging more voices rather than offering a final word on atonement. For many years Protestants, and especially those from the Reformed circles, have focused on penal substitution as the precise, if not the only, way for understanding Christ’s death and resurrection. McKnight, however, helps us appreciate other ways of understanding the atonement through which the Scripture itself portrays it. He points to the limits of each metaphor and the need to consider all of them together to grasp a full picture of the nature of Christ’s atonement.

It is also important to point out McKnight’s focus on the corporate nature of God’s saving work on the cross. It is the work of the triune God who invites us to believe in Christ’s atonement for our salvation. This corporate nature of God’s redemption extends to his household (1 Tim 3:14-15) where God saves individuals from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom to join with the saints of the triumphant church in heaven (1 Cor 12:12-31; Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:18) and the militant church on earth (Eph 6:12). The emphasis on God creating a worshipping community through atonement is thoroughly appropriate in the pervasively Western individualized culture. Speaking of salvation only in individualistic terms can lead to a weakened doctrine of the church and an anemic view of the atonement. To keep things in balance, it is important to highlight, as well, the fact that the Bible speaks of the salvation of individuals who form together a community of believers. It seems that McKnight does not appreciate the fact that the transformation of individuals is foundational to the transformation of the community. He constantly asserts that the atonement cannot be restricted to saving individuals and that atonement is designed to create community. He even goes as far as to describe eternity as “so corporate that individuals simply are unrecognized” (p. 26, emphasis original).

McKnight challenges the church to actively seek out unbelievers rather than passively hope that they will seek out the church and to join God in his quest to seek out broken-yet-divinely-imaged people, which is an undeniably central biblical imperative. His emphasis on God’s restoration of mankind that goes in four directions is also an important aspect of Christ’s atonement. Christ’s saving work does not only restore or reconcile people to God but also to his creation. Since the fall of man has put humanity not only in enmity with God but also in hostility towards his good creation.

However, McKnight’s work does not come without problems. His understanding of Christ’s atonement in terms of Christians’ praxis and missional love to transform the community sounds more like the social gospel movement. It seems that McKnight combines and confuses the act of atonement with the consequences of atonement. He portrays atonement as an ongoing act rather than a one-time act of God with ongoing consequences (cf. Heb 10:1-18). To say that atonement “is the healing” of cracked Eikons and relationships distorts the once-for-all action of God in Christ on the cross with the ongoing effects of that action. McKnight depicts atonement as not just something done to us and for us, but as something we participate in—in this world, in the here and now. For McKnight atonement is something we do as we join God in the missio Dei.

Moreover, it seems that McKnight at times rejects any substitutionary or vicarious understanding of the atonement and proposes variations of the moral influence theory. There is no room in McKnight’s presentation of the atonement for satisfying the divine wrath whereas the Bible clearly speaks of Christ’s atonement as the vindication of the righteousness of God in justifying the ungodly by faith (Rom 3:25-26). Therefore Jesus bears the curse, which was due to our sin, so that we can be justified and the righteousness of God can be vindicated. In penal substitution, God the Son bears the penalty for our sins on the cross. The Scripture speaks of the Son as the object of the Father’s wrath on the cross (Isa 53:5; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Rom 6:23; 2 Cor 5:21).

McKnight’s suggestions that recapitulation is the most comprehensive picture of the atonement as Christ succeeded where Adam failed, undoing the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life, could easily lead to universalism.

Overall, McKnight’s overarching emphasis on community and relationships, offers a much needed corrective to individualistic notions of atonement. In addition, the stress on practice, although not as well defined, is a welcome reminder that atonement is not just about life after death but about how we live here and now.

Rev. Dr. Sherif L. Gendy

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