Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Book Review: A Community Called Atonement
I recently finished Scot McKnight's lastest book, A Community Called Atonement, part of Abingdon Press and Emergent Village's new "Living Theology" line. I have to say that this book is an excellent start to what will hopefully be an excellent series.

Scot's main point throughout the whole book can be summed up by his use of the golf club metaphor. He describes atonement theories as golf clubs, and suggests that just as you wouldn't want to use only one club on the golf course for any and every situation, we likewise shouldn't limit ourselves to only one way to understand the significance of the atonement. He suggests that different atonement theories (e.g. recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, representation, penal substitution, etc.) are useful for answering different theological questions - for instance all the multiple ways that we are oppressed by sin. He points out that how we think the atonement solves the "problem" depends very much on what we think the problem is in the first place, and that if the problem is multifaceted, then it makes sense that the solution would be as well.

I think this "both/and" approach to atonement theories is a wonderful example of what those of us in the emerging church call "a generous orthodoxy" - in other words, embracing a multiplicity of perspectives and many different traditions of the church rather than defining our theology narrowly and excluding anyone who does not completely agree with us. And I think that Scot, as a theologian that has a foot in both the moderate evangelical world and in the emerging church, is an excellent "bridge" for traditionalists to start exploring broader possibilities while also keeping emergent folks connected to their heritage.

Scot builds on this golf club analogy later in the book to suggest that we not only need all of the clubs, but we also need a bag that will hold all of the clubs, an embracive metaphor that includes all of these others. For this he suggests that we should think of atonement as identification for incorporation. In other words, Jesus becomes like us, identifies with humanity, to liberate us from sin so that then we can be incorporated into his new community where God's will is done. This is where the idea of a "community called atonement" comes in. Atonement means being part of a community through which God is at work to redeem the world. As Scot says at the end of Part 3:

"We are now ready to 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."
In the final section Scot fleshes out this idea of "Atonement as Missional Praxis" in a number of ways, with chapters on "Fellowship", "Justice", "Missional", "Living the Story as the Word", and "Baptism, Eucharist, and Prayer". While Scot had many good things to say in each of these chapters (plus a few things I didn't quite agree with), there is too much for me to respond to entirely in this post (perhaps I'll post a few scattered reactions to various points in the days to come). However, the main point which emerges repeatedly (perhaps even a little too repetitively at times) is, as Scot puts it:

"The work of God is to form a community in which the will of God is done and through which one finds both union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world."
This formulation builds off of Scot's own previous work, reiterated again in this book, about human beings as Eikons (image bearers) of God who have been "cracked" and broken in our relationship to God, self, others and the world. It is the restoration of these four essential relationships that is the ultimate work of atonement, and Scot points out that atonement must address all of these relationships to be truly effective - hence the idea of atonement as missional community.

Again, there are far too many good things in this book (for all of its short length) for me to respond to, however, there are a few minor critiques I did want to point out:

Firstly, while I realize that this was intended as a scholarly theological work, I did at times feel like Scot descended a little too often into heavy theological terminology without really bringing it back to a more accessible or even practical understanding. There were many times, when he was talking about the recapitulation or incorporation theories for instance, when I kept wanting to ask "Yes, that sounds nice, but what does that really mean? How does it practically solve the problem of sin in my own life?" Perhaps this was my pastoral tendencies coming out: theological explanations are great, but I need to know whether it will preach. How would I explain it to my congregation in a way that would be meaningful to them?

The strange thing was that even in his chapters on "praxis" I still often felt like Scot was staying too much in the realm of generalizations and abstract language, and not giving enough concrete examples of how this praxis will play out in real life. Perhaps this is just showing my own amateurishness when it comes to theology, but I really could have used more real life stories of what the kind of atonement Scot is talking about would look like. He actually tells one very helpful story about an ER nurse that he knows early on in the book (I liked it enough that I borrowed it for a sermon a few months ago - but don't worry Scot, I cited you :-), but I could have used more of this kind of thing throughout the book.

My second bone to pick, and this is not so much a criticism as simply a disagreement, but I think he is trying too hard to hold onto the "penal substitution" theory. While he does give a very fair treatment of both its inadequacies and especially its misuses, as well as why he still embraces it in the end, in the end I didn't find his defense of penal substitution entirely convincing. Or, to put it more clearly, while I agree with Scot's "re"-definition of what penal substitution is really all about (as opposed to some of its distortions), I think he actually ends up redefining the "penal" part right out of it.

For instance, Scot states (along with other noteworthies like Leon Morris, John Stott, and J.I. Packer) that penal substitution should be "contextualized into a Trinitarian context wherein it is not the Father being 'ticked off' at humans and venting his rage on the Son", but rather it is the identification of Jesus, as a member of the Godhead himself, with fallen humanity to take the consequences of their sin upon himself. Or, as I would put it (and I hope I'm not misrepresenting what I understand Scot to be saying), it is not God inflicting our punishment on Jesus so much as it is God himself, in Jesus, forgoing punishment altogether and being willing instead to suffer the consequences of our sin himself in our place.

However, when you put it that way, I think the "penal" part just sort of evaporates. The point is no longer punishment, the point is forgiveness. I don't really see the point of hanging onto the term at all, unless it is just that Scot doesn't want to cut ties altogether with those who still insist that penal substitution must be the the sole, or at least the dominant metaphor for the atonement. If his goal is to help such people recognize some of the warped ways this theory gets interpreted (e.g. God as an abusive and wrathful Father punishing his Son for someone else's crime, or a bi-polar God who is conflicted about whether to show mercy or justice), and lead them to reinterpret in healthier ways, then I'm all for it. However, I think the term just carries so much negative baggage for so many people, and requires so much reinterpreting to avoid those distortions, that personally I'd rather just find less loaded ways of talking about what Scot is describing. I don't think we need to throw out words like "substitution" or "punishment" or even "wrath", but we need to find new ways to talk about them that avoids the old "penal substitution" formulas which are so easily misunderstood.

Anyhow, with all that said, I still found Scot's book to be very helpful to my own thinking about the atonement. And who knows but that his more inclusive approach on issues like penal substitution might in fact smooth some ruffled feathers and persuade some critics of the emerging church that we're not all just throwing out their favorite theory of the atonement altogether after all.

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