Review: A Community Called Atonement

The doctrine of the atonement has been vigorously debated by Christians throughout their 2,000+ year history. How should the church understand what exactly Jesus did when he came to earth? The centrality of the atonement can’t be undersold, and that has led to the vigor of the debates. It’s so important to the gospel message of Christianity that agreeing to disagree just doesn’t work.

In his book A Community Called Atonement Scot McKnight weighs in on this weighty topic. His contention in this book is that atonement theories are like golf clubs. In the game of golf, there are different clubs that are to be used in different situations. You use a driver off the tee block. You use a wedge to chip the ball onto the green. You use the putter to putt the ball into the hole.

However, you don’t use the putter the drive the ball off the tee. You don’t chip with a driver. And you don’t use a wedge to putt the ball into the hole. You would damage your clubs and lose the round your playing. Golf would become very frustrating.

Scot contends that Christians have become too enamored with a single club and insist on playing an entire round of golf with that one club. One uses his or her 3 Iron to drive, chip and putt the ball. Just like you can’t win at golf playing that weigh, Scot argues that we can’t understand the atonement by forcing a singular theory of atonement onto God and his story.

I liked a lot of what Scot said in this book. I have come to love his engaging writing style. It’s extremely accessible to anyone as he avoids as much complex discussion as he can, and breaks down creatively the complexities he is forced to engage.

Also, he makes a lot of excellent points about atonement. The main point that I found most needed in my own understanding is the full extent of atonement. If one just takes the word “atonement” one can see “at-one-ment” there–which is where the word originated from. This at-one-ment act of God isn’t just God setting individuals right with himself. It’s much bigger. It’s taking his Image bearers that have cracked their Image of God bearingness. The Trinitarian God incarnates as Jesus and deals with sin to create a community of people who do the will of God on earth. In other words, atonement is God healing the cracked images and invites them into his trinitarian existence–not as deities or divine beings but as he always intended his image bearing creatures to share.

Thus, when the church is functioning rightly, atonement is going on in that moment. Atonement isn’t limited to just Jesus’ death. It begins with his incarnation and reaches its goal/end in a community (Israel/Kingdom/Church). So any theory of the atonement that doesn’t take image bearers and bring them into this community is a theory that falls flat.

The other thing I liked is that Scot reaches into Eastern Orthodoxy, not just Catholic or Protestant theologies, to bring about a solution. He argues that Irenaeus and Athanasius use of recapitulation to understand Jesus is the bag with which he holds all the clubs of atonement theories in. Jesus retells the stories of Adam (the first image bearer) and Israel (the community people of God in the OT) climaxing with his death and resurrection. The Church is the community that Adam and Israel are meant to be. Theories like Christus Victor and Penal Substitution and Satisfaction are all incorporated into this idea. Scot renames this theory as “identification for incorporation.”

But it’s right here that I found myself unpersuaded by McKnight. I hold to what is known as Christus Victor. But I don’t confine it to just the realm of theory. Rather, for me, it’s a theme in the biblical story, a motif. Christ’s victory over sin and our sinful earthly powers is the most surface understanding of Jesus’ life in Gospels. Recapitulation in the Gospels takes a bit of wrangling (though not incorrectly) of the temptation passages in Luke and Matthew. And recapitulation was already a part of my Christus Victor motif.

But Scot was right for me to incorporate the establishing of a community as part of atonement. The church is the victorious sign that Christ has won. Thus whenever the Church, along with its individuals, are being the community that God created them to be, we are still seeing atonement. We are seeing the goal of atonement.

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~ by hankimler on September 25, 2013.

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