Vol. 1, No. 2 –
Diving for pearls in the endless stream of books (Eccles. 12:12B)
Chris Smith, editor
The Church and
the Reconciliation of all Things
A review of Scot McKnight’s
A Community Called Atonement
By Chris Smith
http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/2007/09/scot-mcknights-community-called.html). While I have had an intuition that the Church will play a vital role in God’s atonement, the prospect of a deeper exploration into this theological terrain was a very welcome one, and when I finally got my hands on McKnight’s book, it did not disappoint.
In the first three parts of the book McKnight deftly uses Scripture to paint a depiction of the process of atonement. In the first of these parts, he essentially presents his definition of atonement. The foundation of this definition is the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, which as he notes is shaped through and through by the mission of the Kingdom. McKnight then provides the theological understandings of humanity and sin that he will use in his depiction of atonement. Humanity he describes as “cracked eikons” – i.e., beings in the image of God – that will ultimately be transformed into “glory-producing eikons.” Sin, he says, is hyper-relational, corrupting our relationships with God, self, others and all creation. He concludes the first part of the book by emphasizing the ecclesial nature of atonement: creation is intended as a worshipping fellowship and God is at work restoring that vision by gathering a people, which began in the people of ancient Israel, continued through the Kingdom witness of Jesus and is culminated in the Church, as it is united and energized by the Holy Spirit. At this point, McKnight is ready to offer his most concise definition of atonement: “Atonement is the work of God to create and ready his people for just these things: union with God and communion with others in a place of perfection, with a society of justice and peace and above all worship of the Lamb of God on the throne” (p. 27).
In part two, McKnight begins with a beautiful excurses on metaphor and why metaphor is theologically essential as an expression of humility. He proceeds to offer some scriptural metaphors that give some shape to the definition of atonement that he has laid out in the book’s first part. As in many of the historical atonement theories, the cross is an essential metaphor for McKnight, but he clarifies that his understanding is not a “sola crux” one, but rather a “crux et …” one in which the cross must be understood in its proper conjunction with the incarnation, the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church (Pentecost).
McKnight then continues in part three to survey the metaphors that have been historically used to depict atonement, beginning with Jesus, then Paul, the Early Church and then the atonement theories of the modern era. In the book’s prologue, McKnight uses the analogy of a bag of golf clubs to convey that a full-bodied theory of atonement will need to be comprised of a number of metaphors in order to describe the manifold wisdom of God’s redemptive work. This analogy will resonate with McKnight’s readers who have made their peace with the critiques of postmodernism because of its humility in recognizing the impossibility of a full depiction, its plurality of diverse approaches and its connection with its historical roots. Thus, following this analogy, part three of the book is McKnight’s attempt to describe the “golf clubs” he finds useful in depicting the broad range of God’s atoning work. Of particular interest here is McKnight’s careful reading of the beneficial aspects of the primary historical atonement theories: (recapitulation, ransom, satisfaction, substitution, representation and penal substitution).
The book’s final section, part four “Atonement as Praxis” is in my opinion, the book’s weakest section. For all McKnight’s skill in handling the Scriptures and historical theology, his venture into the ethics of atonement here leaves something to be desired. There are two primary concerns that I wish to raise about this section. First, even as just an introduction to the ethics of atonement, it is inordinately brief. Perhaps the brevity was necessary to fit the purposes of the overall manuscript, and McKnight himself acknowledges its incompleteness (p. 118), but the focus of atonement is God’s reconciliation of all things, which of course is no small topic. I would love to see a supplementary volume that uses McKnight’s theological foundation as unfurled in the book’s first three parts to develop a more robust ethics of atonement.
The second issue that I have with the final section of this book is one that frequently pops up in theological conversations and in the praxis of a wide variety of churches across the
This seemingly individualistic wording does not seem to fit with the picture that McKnight paints in the book’s second part of the fellowship of the church which is “so corporate that individuals simply are unrecognized” (p. 26). That eternal fellowship begins in the here and now as we – to borrow New Testament language – die to ourselves and are resurrected together as the community known as the body of Christ. It seems impossible to me to speak of missional churches without any exploration of the practice of corporate discernment, of seeking together for the “missionary work” that God is doing and pursuing those ends as a community. From my experience, McKnight reflects here a widespread reality in missional/emerging churches: the church becomes a group of individuals with their own missions and social justice causes rather than a community united around discerning and pursuing God’s atoning work together. To be fair, there are hints in the final three chapters that McKnight might be sympathetic to such a vision of communal mission, and especially in his concept of “identification for incorporation” (p. 147-148), but one wishes that the themes of corporate identity and corporate mission had been emphasized a little more clearly in his depiction of missional praxis.
Overall, A Community Called Atonement is an important little book, a refreshing shift in the way that the Church understands atonement. Its message is much needed in an age when the individualism of the larger culture has seeped into the church’s theologies of salvation and atonement. Scot McKnight has laid here a solid theological foundation for an ecclesial model of atonement. It is a book that should be read and discussed, and perhaps some astute minds might even be inspired to develop further the ethics of atonement that he begins to sketch out in the book’s final section. I wait in great anticipation for the coming of such reflection, and with even greater anticipation for a time when these ideas are more fully embodied in our church communities!
A Community Called Atonement
by Scot McKnight. Abingdon Press. Living Theology Series. November 2007.
[ A note on buying books: We offer you the opportunity to buy the books listed here, either directly from our little independent bookstore (Doulos Christou Books), or through amazon.com. The prices listed for our bookstore do not include shipping or
Used Book Finds
The bread-n-butter of our bookstore business is the sale of used books, and we do a fair amount of scouting around for used books each week. In this section we will feature some of the interesting books that we have found in the past week. Generally, we will only have a single copy of these books, so if you want one (or more) of them, you’ll need to respond quickly.
Belief in Science and in Christian Life:
The Relevance of Michael Polanyi’s
Thought for Christian Faith and Life.
T.F. Torrance, editor. Hardcover. 1980. Like New with dustjacket.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $7 ]
One Body, One Spirit:
Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches.
George Yancey. Foreword by Michael O. Emerson.
Paperback. 2003. Very Good. Clean pages / Minimal wear.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $5 ]
The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography.
Dorothy Day. Intro by Daniel Berrigan.
Paperback. 1985 Printing. Very Good. Clean pages / Minimal wear.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $5 ]
Lauren Winner reviews the novel
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
“Geraldine Brooks—author of two terrific novels, Year of Wonders and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March—has outdone herself. Her newest offering, People of the Book, opens in 1996 with the arrival Hanna Heath, a 30-year-old book conservator, to
Read the full review:
The New York Times review of
Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.
“…Goaded by ‘the silence of the yams,’ Mr. Pollan wants to help old-fashioned edibles fight back. So he has written “In Defense of Food,” a tough, witty, cogent rebuttal to the proposition that food can be reduced to its nutritional components without the loss of something essential. ‘We know how to break down a kernel of corn or grain of wheat into its chemical parts, but we have no idea how to put it back together again,’ he writes.
In this lively, invaluable book — which grew out of an essay Mr. Pollan wrote for The New York Times Magazine, for which he is a contributing writer — he assails some of the most fundamental tenets of nutritionism: that food is simply the sum of its parts, that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, that the primary purpose of eating is to maintain health, and that eating requires expert advice. Experts, he says, often do a better job of muddying these issues than of shedding light on them. And it serves their own purposes to create confusion. In his opinion the industry-financed branch of nutritional science is ‘remarkably reliable in its ability to find a health benefit in whatever food it has been commissioned to study.’ … ”
Read the full review: