Friday, October 5, 2007


Reflections on Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement

Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, wades into what he calls the “atonement wars” with a contribution marked by the same freshness, lucidity, and insight we have come to expect from him. The title, A Community Called Atonement, grabs us right off by juxtaposing two terms, “atonement” and “community” that have not often been paired in this discussion. Following an introductory chapter setting up the question, McKnight’s argument proceeds in four Movements seeking to answer anew three perennial atonement questions – “Where to Begin?” “With Which Image?” and “Whose Story?” – before offering an fresh question for examination as well – “Who does Atonement?”

This volume is part of Abingdon Press’s “Living Theology” series, a set of brief, non-technical, accessible explorations of theology under the auspices of Emergent Village, directed by Tony Jones who is also the series editor. Whatever you make of “emergent” or “emerging” theology, this rubric at least alerts one to expect some surprises along the way; and in this, McKnight does not disappoint.

I will offer first a series of posts on the major sections of the book. Then I will close with some reflections on the argument presented.

McKnight’s basic posture on the “atonement wars” is that some of the current criticisms have points that should be heard but too often they are overdone or overheated by attention given to one-sided or incomplete expositions of various classical positions. He offers his own “embracive” formulations that seeks to include the strengths of the others without falling prey to their weaknesses.

The introductory chapter sets out the challenge that the reality of what we have come to call “atonement” poses: does it work? Are the lives of Christians different and better through their relationship to God made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection? A second challenge that resounds throughout the book is how are we intended to appropriate “atonement”? and how wide the scope of this endeavor on God’s part. Throughout, but focally in the last section the term “missional” provides the shorthand response to this challenge. Atonement makes possible the community that knows itself engaged in God’s “mission” of reclaiming, restoring, and renewing his creatures and creatures to reflect his glory even more fully that the original pristine creation did. This “missional” focus also keep front and center McKnight’s pastoral passion for “praxis” – how does this all work out in our lived reality. The “dialectical assumption” undergirding this study is:

The gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create.
The kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach.

Now we are ready to enjoy the ride through scripture and church history only to arrive back in the early 21st century with some new tools to consider in our teaching on and ministry of “atonement.”

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