September 27, 2007 / David Fitch

Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement

Many of us evangelicals know the inner discontent we grew up concerning the stripped down, austere, narrow understanding of the atonement we were taught day in day out in church, Sunday school and youth camp. This forensic substitutionary penal view of the atonement gave us an introduction to the atonement, opened up a narrow doorway into a life with God, but in the end left us empty as to how this relationship with God called atonement drew us into a complete and totally new way of life. As George Lindbeck once commented at the Wheaton Theology Conference, “the penal substitutionary view of the atonement was better than nothing,” but it was severely lacking as a metaphor for understanding what God has done for us and all of creation in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Many have tried to write fuller treatments of the atonement that address the inherent weaknesses of evangelical theologies of the atonement. Evangelicals have even made valiant efforts (see most recently here). But Scot McKnight’s treatment in A Community Called Atonement is monumental in its accomplishment to address this lack in the N. American church. His latest book, part of the Emergent Village’s Living Theology series edited by Tony Jones, is monumental not so much because it covers new ground in the field of atonement studies. Nor is it monumental because it covers the atonement with historical/theological/Biblical Studies depth (which it does!) with a keen awareness of the current hermeneutical debates (which it does), and provides a way to think more holisticly and expansively about the atonement (which it does!). The monumental accomplishment of this book is that it does all that IN A FORMAT AND LANGUAGE WHICH IS EMINENTLY READABLE FOR THE AVERAGE THEOLOGICALLY INTERESTED READER. For me this is an extraordinary accomplishment which exhibits McKnight at his best. This is a tool to help all of us pastors teach the great doctrine of what our God has accomplished for the world in Christ in ways that invite our congregations into the extraordinary life of redemption and reconciliation with God and the world made possible in Christ’s life, death and resurrection and exaltation as Lord over the universe. It gives us the basics to teach the whole atonement as an invitation into a way of life and what God is doing to reconcile the whole world to Himself 2 Cor 5:17-21.

In this book, you will find concise treatments of all the history and theories of the atonement and their basis in Scripture. You will find how these various theories are understood via images/metaphors, unfolded via the stories they tell, and how they are worked out in communal life via the various practices. But the unique contribution of this little book is McKnight’s insistence that the atonement must birth a peculiar kind of community. It is almost as if, for McKnight, ecclesiology becomes the centrepoint of the outworking of the atonement worked in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For some of us closet Hauerwasian’s, this is a breath of fresh air. On page 75 McKnight says “… Atonement cannot be restricted to saving individuals. When it is, it destroys the fabric of the biblical story. The fabric is the community of faith, and atonement is designed to create community …” For a long time there has been a reticence in the emergent community to give too central a place to the church as the instrument of God’s justice in the world. For me this is incompatible with the postmodern recognition that society is fragmented, we have no longer a single meta narrative by which to communicate and talk about salvation never mind justice in the world, and we therefore must work out who we are in embodied communities that infect our neighborhoods. I think McKnight’s book builds a theology of the atonement which makes this point stunningly clear with a breadth that cannot be denied.

Get the book! It will be a resourse for the preaching of the entire Story of the atonement in Christ that in turn can transform your church into a missional participant in God’s Mission to redeem the world through Christ.