Monday, October 8, 2007


Reflections on McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement (2)

Chs. 2-4 comprise McKnight’s answers to the first of his atonement questions: “Where to begin? His answers are: with Jesus (ch.2), with God, Eikons and Sin (ch.3), and with eternity, ecclesial community and praxis (ch.4)

Beginning a study of atonement with Jesus brings in the kingdom of God with him. This kingdom “is the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life” (9). As too often has happened in theology, reflection on atonement has neglected this essential biblical starting point, or rather, ending point. The kingdom of God points to what God intends to achieve, that is, the restoration of human beings to the society of those who live as God intends and reflect his image. Thus, McKnight claims, any theory of atonement that does not feature this societal, or ecclesial component, is inadequate.

He then traces what he calls the “Lukan thread” to make this point. In a crisp survey of Luke and Acts, McKnight takes us through the Magnificat (Luke 1:46—5), the Benedictus (1:67-79), Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth (4:16-21), the Beatitudes (6:20-26), Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist (7:21-23), and the early church (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35). These texts point us to an ecclesial rather than individualistic focus for atonement. Jesus’ kingdom message is about a covenant community in which God’s will for his creation is lived out, including “healing justice, the ending of disease, dislocation, and oppression. Thus, if atonement is aimed at accomplishing God’s purposes, then a communal/ecclesial focus inheres in such a project.

Ch.3 broadens out the focus to take us back to the beginning and beyond. Noting that where one begins determines where one ends up, McKnight traces a number of different places where others have started their study of atonement, and reminds us that he will start with the kingdom of God, and –surprise – at six other places as well in order to weave a theory supple enough to handle the reality of atonement!

God, according to Christian understanding, is a triune being involved in a eternal dance of love. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give and receive love from other throughout all eternity. The intricate and inexhaustible patterns of this dance show us not simply “who” God is but “how” God is as well. This God is an eternally relational deity. The nature of love is to extend itself to others; thus in creation God imprints this relationality on everything he makes. All God’s creatures, then are designed for relationship with God and one another, as the Gospel of John in particular makes inescapably clear. Atonement, then, has centrally to do with reweaving the broken threads of all these relationships into a united whole again.

Human beings, created in “God’s image” (Gen.1:26) are “Eikons” of God (Greek word for “image”). That means we are to represent God in the world; we are God’s image throughout all creation. That means we are beings oriented to union with God and with others and created to participate in God’s ruling, caring, protecting, nurturing of creation (i.e., missional beings).

Sadly and tragically, we have become “cracked” Eikons by turning away from that relationship to God. And in so doing we have spoiled our relationships with each other, and the creation as well. Atonement will have as one of its tasks to repair us “cracked” Eikons so we can begin to take up our creational responsibilities and opportunities anew.

Responding to this tragic “crack-up,” the Bible turns toward highlighting the redemptive, atoning nature of God’s image as it focuses on Jesus Christ, the Perfect Eikon.

Next comes “hyperrelational” sin. “Hyperrelational” is a postmodern equivalent for multi-relational and means that sin has damaged and disordered every sphere of life – frontally and primarily with God but catching up everything else in its wake. Sin is our choice to go it alone and live in absolute freedom from God and others. To try to live this way, though, cuts against the grain of our created being. We cannot do it. This is a self-diminishing and destructive way to be. When such cracked Eikons try to live together in society, their inability to live in community as designed results in larger and larger patterns of distortion and deformation, what we call “structural” or “systemic” injustice. Such sin must be dealt with and atonement is God’s means of healing this breach and opening again the possibility of hyperrelational obedience for the creature.

In ch.4 McKnight fills out the last three of his seven starting points for reflecting on atonement: eternity, ecclesial community, and praxis. Biblical imagery for eternity pictures a community or fellowship at worship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son at the center receiving the praise and worship. This is another way of beginning at the end and deducing the nature of atonement from the effect it is designed to produce. If these visions of the future are to come to pass, the God’s atoning work will have to focused on the re-creation of just this kind of community.

Likewise, the historical unfolding of God’s plan has always entailed unveiling a further dimension of community. In Israel, the Kingdom announced and inaugurated by Jesus, and the church following his resurrection, covenant community has always been at the heart of God’s purposes. So also God’s atoning work.

Atonement, for McKnight, has both objective and subjective poles. Objectively, what God has done for us; subjectively, what we do in response. God’s atoning work on our behalf calls for reciprocal acts of atonement by us on others’ behalf. This “reciprocal performance” on our part is “praxis.”

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” says the Lord’s Prayer. This is praxis. To be called to participate in the “ministry of reconciliation“ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20), this too is praxis.

“To be forgiven, to be atoned for, to be reconciled – syn-
onymous expressions – is to be granted a mission to
become a reciprocal performer of the same: to forgive,
to work atonement, and to be an agent of reconciliation.
Thus, atonement is not just something done to us and for
us, it is something we participate in – in this world – in
the here and now. It is not just something done, but
something that is being done and something we do as
we join God in the missio Dei.” (30, emphasis author’s)

Thus we discover that, at every turn thus far, God’s atoning work is resolutely focused on the rescue, restoration, and renewing of an ecclesial missional community.