Monday, February 11, 2008

Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement

I just finished reading Scot McKnight's book A Community Called Atonement, which is a balanced exposition of atonement not merely as a doctrine but as praxis and a way of life. He argues that too many Christians these days have narrowly focused on one approach to the atonement to the excusion of others, and he says this is rather like playing golf with only one golf club. But different clubs do different things; that's the whole point of having a bag with fourteen different clubs in it. (It occurs to me that the only time we use only one club is when we're playing mini golf - which might be what the Christian life is like when we only see the atonement one way!)

So McKnight takes us on a tour of the Christian story to unpack all the various metaphors and components to atonement: recapitulation, ransom, Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation, etc. He says, "What we are most in need of today is not a continuance of the atonement wars for a privileged metaphor, but a vigorous discussion of the value of each of the metaphors so that each image is invited to the table. . . . I'm arguing instead for an embracive category, one that includes each metaphor in a larger, rounded whole. We need to use all the clubs in our bag and we need a bag that can hold them all."

The golf bag, so to speak, is what he calls "identification for incorporation." Jesus, in the incarnation, identifies with us, becomes what we are, and experiences our humanity and suffering. And this identification has the purpose of incorporation, that we are incorporated into Christ, the second Adam. McKnight does a fantastic job of showing how all aspects of the atonement are wrapped up in being "in Christ." Justification is in Christ (Gal 2:17), sanctification is in Christ (1 Cor 1:2), redemption is in Christ (Rom 3:24), new creation is in Christ (2 Cor 5:19), freedom is in Christ (Gal 2:4), new life is in Christ (Rom 6:11) and on and on.

So it's more than a cognitive matter of getting the "right" atonement theory or doctrine down pat. It's rather that all of the different vocabulary sheds light on the lived reality of being in Christ. It's more than holding the "right" golf club; it's actually playing the game. Or, to change the analogy, McKnight says that it's like playing the violin:
"The magic of a violin is the capacity for the violinist to make each string work in harmony with the others to create the appropriate sound. If a violinist somehow managed to play only one string on the violin, the sound could never be complete. Some theories of atonement ask violinists either to pluck all but one string or to play gospel music as though only one string really mattered. I want to contend that we need each of the strings, and that we need to seek for a violinist with a bow that can stroke the strings so well that the potency of each string creates a harmonious composition that puts our hearts at rest." (p. 114)
And in case anybody's worried about McKnight denying substitutionary atonement or penal substitution, he's quite clear that he affirms these and that the Bible teaches that Jesus suffered death on our part. It's a reflection of his identification (he died our death) for the purpose of incorporation (so we might partake in his resurrection and be raised with him). McKnight also notes that "substitution" is not complete enough as a metaphor. He argues that "we ought to use the term representation more, for it is true that Jesus 'represents' us the way a priest represents the people before God."

There's much more that could be said, but I'll spare the details here and simply commend the book to you. It's quite accessible and doesn't get bogged down in theological jargon or minutiae. If you don't care to get into all the theological analysis and would prefer a treatment that simply probes each of the various images and metaphors, take a look at Neil Livingstone's Picturing the Gospel, which looks at images from redemption and ransom to justification and new life in a very practical way and spins out implications for ministry and witness.


Scot McKnight said...

Thanks Al ... I picked up an incoming link from your blog to mine so I wandered over to find this.


Al Hsu said...

No problem, Scot. Thanks for doing the book. I'll also be making brief mention of you in my April CT column, which will be about various approaches to the gospel.

Friar Tuck said...

Good stuff. I have the book but it is still on the shelf waiting to be read.

Andy said...

I really enjoyed Scot's book also. The identification for incorporation concept as the "golf bag" metaphor was very freeing for those of us who are evangelist types - we are able to use what model of the atonement we have to hit the ball closer to the hole.

In discussing it with some friends, we came up with another metaphor - as if the atonement models themselves are like members of an ensemble cast, and it's through their interaction with each other that we realize how important they all are to the grand story.

To remove an essential character in a story such as Lord of the Rings, like Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, or Sam would leave the grand story as we know it as far less than it is now. Such is the same with the models of atonement - they each bring out another aspect of the grand story of the gospel.

Al Hsu said...

Andy - I love the metaphor of an ensemble cast of characters. And it points out the absurdity of trying to figure out which one atonement theory, if any, is the "main one." It would be like asking which member of the Fellowship of the Ring is the most important. And while many Christians assume that Frodo is the primary character because he is the designated ring-bearer, author Mark Eddy Smith in Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues points out that the Fellowship actually has multiple Christ-figures, all of which shed light on the whole story. Gandalf's sacrifice and return, Aragorn's warrior kingship, Sam's bearing of Frodo, Frodo's absorption of pain - all of them are necessary aspects of the narrative.

To use another analogy, think of the success of the ensemble cast of Friends. Originally it was supposed to center around Monica/Courtney Cox as the main character with the others all being her wacky friends, but they made a tactical decision early on that it would truly be a cast of six equals, with none of them being the "lead." All of them would have episodes that highlighted their particular personalities, and all of them would have an equal role to play in the success of the show. It would be absurd to argue that one of the friends is more important than the others - all of them were essential to the story.

It also occurs to me that this model of the ensemble cast lends itself well to the notion of the gospel as story or narrative drama. It can't be merely transactional or judicial - the various cast members are part of an unfolding plot.