A Community Called Atonement

A Community Called Atonement


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A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight

Over the centuries the church developed a number of metaphors, such as penal substitution or the ransom theory, to speak about Christ's death on the cross and the theological concept of the atonement. Yet too often, says Scot McKnight, Christians have held to the supremacy of one metaphor over against the others, to their detriment. He argues instead that to plumb the rich theological depths of the atonement, we must consider all the metaphors of atonement and ask whether they each serve a larger purpose.

A Community Called Atonement is a constructive theology that not only values the church's atonement metaphors but also asserts that the atonement fundamentally shapes the life of the Christian and of the church. That is, Christ identifies with humans to call us into a community that reflects God's love (the church)--but that community then has the responsibility to offer God's love to others through missional practices of justice and fellowship, living out its life together as the story of God's reconciliation. Scot McKnight thus offers an accessible, thought-provoking theology of atonement that engages the concerns of those in the emerging church conversation and will be of interest to all those in the church and academy who are listening in.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687645541
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 01/06/2012
Series: Living Theology Series
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 858,544
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

A Community Called Atonement

By Scot McKnight

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-64554-1



In the Christian faith the key to the puzzle is the work of Jesus Christ. Once we have a solid grasp of the meaning of his work, the rest of the faith falls together around it. When I discovered the universal and cosmic nature of Christ, I was given the key to a Christian way of viewing the whole world, a key that unlocked the door to a rich storehouse of spiritual treasures.

Robert Webber

Christians believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that this all took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity—it is our gospel. It explains how that gospel works.

The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians to show up in statistics as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called the "truth of the gospel." Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

The Question: Does Atonement Work?

The challenge of the atonement is this: Does atonement work? Are Christians any better than anyone else in their relationship with God, self, others, and the world? Is there not a claim that atonement generates a multifaceted healing of the person so that Christians ought to love God and love others, so that Christians ought to be different? Even a little? And I'm not talking about individuals, for it is all too easy to find a bad Christian and a good Muslim or Buddhist and say, "Christianity doesn't work but Islam and Buddhism do!" We need to think of the big picture: Are Christians—taken as a whole—more loving people? Are they more forgiving? Are they more just? Are they more peaceful? Are they really better?

I teach a generation of students that believes the credibility of the Christian faith is determined by claiming a confident (if humble) "Yes!" to each of those questions. This generation is tired of an old-fashioned atonement theology that does not make a difference, of an old-fashioned atonement theology that is for individual spiritual formation but not for ecclesial re-formation, and of an old-fashioned atonement theology that does not reconcile humans with humans. This generation of students doesn't think the "I'm not perfect, just forgiven" bumper sticker is either funny or something to be proud of. They believe atonement ought to make a difference in the here and now. Christians, they say, aren't perfect but they ought to be different—at least they ought to be if the atonement works. They think it ought to work.

So do I. If you agree, this book is for you.

Our rethinking of an atonement that works by forming new persons in a new community moves along the trajectory charted by David Bosch, the great South African missiologist whose tragic death is still mourned: "Salvation in Christ is salvation in the context of human society en route to a whole and healed world." If a previous generation was taught that evangelism and social justice were disconnected, even if one could (or even should) flow from the other, the present generation knows of a holistic human being in an interlocking society of connections where any notion of gospel or atonement must be one that is integrated and community-shaped if it is to be called "good news" at all. As God is missional (missio Dei) so the work of the church and individual Christians is also missional. To be missional means to participate in the missio Dei, the mission of God to redeem this world.

I believe the atonement is good news, and I believe it is because of stories like this one.

A Story: Yes, Atonement Does Work

Dawn Husnick, after some tough years with alcohol, failed personal relationships, and depression, found her feet for the journey. She now works part-time at an ER in the Chicagoland area and gave me the liberty to use her story, a story of how atonement works. It is the story of God's embracing grace that makes a person capable of embracing others with grace so that the atonement begins to work for others.

In my years in the ER, I saw Jesus daily doing His kingdom work in and through a group of His followers. It was a true expression of the church. One day stands out beyond all the others and left me radically changed forever. It was the day I saw Jesus face to face ...

"Give us hearts as servants" was the song they were singing as I left the church service, heading off for my second twelve-hour shift in a row. Weekends in the ER can be absolutely brutal! I was physically and emotionally spent as I walked up to the employee entrance. The sound of ambulances and an approaching medical helicopter were telltale signs that I would be literally hitting the ground running.

"Dawn ... can you lock down room 15?" yelled out my charge nurse as I crawled up to the nurse's station. (When someone asked for a lockdown it was usually a psychiatric or combative case.) Two security guards stood outside the room, biceps flexing like bouncers anticipating a drunken brawl. My eyes rolled as I walked past them into the room to set up.

The masked medics arrived with [Name, N.] strapped and restrained to their cart. The hallway cleared with heads turned away in disgust at the smell surrounding them. They entered the room and I could see N. with his feet hung over the edge of the cart covered with plastic bags tightly taped around the ankles. The ER doctor quickly examined N. while we settled him in. The medics rattled off their findings in the background with N. mumbling in harmony right along with them. The smell was overpowering as they uncovered his swollen, mold-encrusted feet. After tucking him in and taking his vital signs, I left the room to tend to my other ten patients-in-waiting.

Returning to the nurse's station, I overheard the other nurses and techs arguing over who would take N. as their patient. In addition to the usual lab work and tests, the doctor had ordered a shower complete with betadine foot scrub, antibiotic ointment, and non-adherent wraps. The charge nurse looked in my direction. "Dawn, will you please take N.? Please? You don't have to do the foot scrub—just give him the sponge in the shower." I agreed and made my way to gather the supplies and waited for the security guard to open up the hazmat shower.

As I waited with N., the numbness of my business was interrupted by an overwhelming sadness. I watched N., restless and mumbling incoherently to himself through his scruff of a beard and 'stache. His eyes were hidden behind his ratted, curly, shoulder-length mane. This poor shell of a man had no one to love him. I wondered about his past and what happened to bring him to this hopelessly empty place? No one in the ER that day really looked at him and no one wanted to touch him. They wanted to ignore him and his broken life. But as much as I tried... I could not. I was drawn to him.

The smirking security guards helped me walk him to the shower. As we entered the shower room I set out the shampoo, soaps, and towels like it was a five-star hotel. I felt in my heart that for at least ten minutes, this forgotten man would be treated as a king. I thought for those ten minutes he would see the love of Jesus. I set down the foot sponge and decided that I would do the betadine foot scrub by myself as soon as his shower was finished. I called the stock room for two large basins and a chair.

When N. was finished in the shower I pulled back the curtain and walked him to the "throne" of warmed blankets and the two basins set on the floor. As I knelt at his feet, my heart broke and stomach turned as I gently picked up his swollen rotted feet. Most of his nails were black and curled over the top of his toes. The skin was rough, broken, and oozing pus. Tears streamed down my face while my gloved hands tenderly sponged the brown soap over his wounded feet.

The room was quiet as the once-mocking security guards started to help by handing me towels. As I patted the last foot dry, I looked up and for the first time N.'s eyes looked into mine. For that moment he was alert, aware, and weeping as he quietly said, "Thank you." In that moment, I was the one seeing Jesus. He was there all along, right where he said he would be.

"'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me....' 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25:35-40)

Dawn's story illustrates that atonement works. It shows that one person, emerging from the community of faith, can missionally spend herself for "the neighbor" who happens to come her way in the effort to bring the reconciling work of God into a new context. Not all see atonement in such big terms; I do, and so has the history of Christian thought.

Now more than ever in the history of mankind, the fullness of atonement is needed. Why? Never has tension between cultures and continents been so high, and never has the reconciling work of atonement been more of an urgent need. Do we offer such reconciliation in our understanding of atonement? My contention is that how we frame atonement will make all the difference for the world.

Our Choice: Which Atonement Theory Will It Be?

About 90 percent of American churches have developed in such a way that about 90 percent of the people in those churches are of the same color. Which is to say that only about 10 percent of churches are integrated. Why might this be so? Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their prophetic book Divided by Faith, conclude with this: "The processes that generate church growth, internal strength, and vitality in a religious marketplace also internally homogenize and externally divide people. Conversely, the processes intended to promote the inclusion of different peoples also tend to weaken the internal identity, strength, and vitality of volunteer organizations." Ouch!

What these two authors mean by their sociologically shaped term "processes" is what I mean by "gospel" and "atonement" and how we "package" such terms. Here are the dialectical assumptions of this book:

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

It would be simplistic and colonizing to suggest that power determines everything, but we should be alert to the observation that the power a local church possesses shapes what it offers as gospel and atonement. Could it be that we are not reconciled more in this world—among Christians, within the USA, and between countries—because we have shaped our atonement theories to keep our group the same and others out? I believe the answer to that question is unambiguously yes.

There is no reason to pretend otherwise; it is inescapable. We are shaped by the texts of our sacred tradition but we also shape what we read and hear in those sacred texts. This book hopes that we can learn to deconstruct our readings and our location in the belief that such a deconstruction will empower us to create alternative communities where the fullness of the gospel, and the atonement theory behind it, can be unleashed to do the work God wills. The theory of atonement I offer here will ask many of us to toss away our old bag, add some new clubs, and put them all into an "old bag that still speaks."

Where do we begin when we construct a theory of atonement?



What if Jesus of Nazareth was right—more right, and right in different ways, than we have ever realized?

—Brian McLaren

You might be surprised to find the number of books on atonement that simply do not interact with (or even mention) Jesus' vision of the kingdom. (I'll avoid finger-pointing footnotes.) Why? Because atonement theories have been shaped by the history of atonement theories, and that history has been dominated by Paul's letter to the Romans so one-sidedly that opening the door to the kingdom upsets the entire conversation. (I must add that it is not only dominated by Romans, but also by how some in the church have read Romans—and not all today read Romans that way.)

The kingdom of God, in short compass, is the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life. The kingdom of God is more than what God is doing "within you" and more than God's personal "dynamic presence"; it is what God is doing in this world through the community of faith for the redemptive plans of God—including what God is doing in you and me. It transforms relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world.

What Jesus meant by "kingdom" opens before us like a bud blooming in what I call the "Lukan thread." Before we get there let me clarify where we are going: we will argue here that atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans—in all directions—so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God's will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life. Any theory of atonement that is not an ecclesial theory of the atonement is inadequate—and how the Lukan thread unveils that kingdom society is the place to begin any theory of atonement.

Kingdom: The Lukan Thread

I begin with the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and I do so for two reasons. First, it is a prophetic word of God that reveals God's redemptive intent and how that intent will work itself out in the son of Mary. Second, Mary nurtured Jesus and passed on a vision like this to her son; reading the Magnificat is (in my guess) reading what Jesus heard as a child from his mother (and father).

Here are some salient points from the Magnificat as they relate to what "kingdom" means: God is the "Savior" because he has given Mary a baby, reversing her condition of poverty (in imitation of Hannah). God is merciful to those who fear him (and she considers herself one such fearer of God). Israel's God is now on the verge of "mighty deeds" of two sorts: first, of de-elevating the powerful by scattering the proud and stripping rulers from their powerful positions; and second, of exalting the humble poor (like Mary) by granting them their proper social status and filling them with enough to eat. What any first-century Jew would have heard in these words is not hard to imagine: the Davidic dynasty would once and for all be reestablished. These are words of, if not outright rebellion, at least threat and subversion. And, as if Mary is reshaping the meaning of the Abrahamic covenant, she contends that in this very act of giving her a baby God is remembering his covenant with Abraham.

Mary magnifies the Lord for vindicating her and for establishing justice through her son, just as he promised so long ago. For Mary, the Abrahamic covenant is the promise of God not only to be faithful to Israel but also to be faithful to all of Israel, including the poor, so that a society is created in which God's will is established. She's thrilled to be at the heart of that society. Mary's Magnificat is connected to Zechariah's own song.


Excerpted from A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Atonement: The Question, a Story, and Our Choice,
PART ONE Atonement and Convergence: Where to Begin?,
2. With Jesus, Of Course!,
3. With God, with Eikons, and with Sin, Too,
4. With Eternity, with Ecclesial Community, and with Praxis, Too,
PART TWO Atonement and Image: With Which Image?,
5. Atonement as Metaphor: Metaphor and Mechanics,
6. The Mystery of Our Metaphors: An Exercise in Postmodern Humility,
7. Atoning Moments: Crux Sola?,
8. Atoning Moments: Incarnation as Second Adam,
9. Atoning Moments: Crucifixion,
10. Atoning Moments: Easter and Pentecost,
PART THREE Atonement as Story: Whose Story?,
11. The Story of Jesus: Passover,
12. The Story of Paul: In the Courtroom of God,
13. The Story of Early Theologians: Irenaeus and Athanasius,
14. Which Is the Fairest of Them All?,
PART FOUR Atonement as Praxis: Who Does Atonement?,
15. Atonement as Missional Praxis: Fellowship,
16. Atonement as Missional Praxis: Justice,
17. Atonement as Missional Praxis: Missional,
18. Atonement as Missional Praxis: Living the Story of the Word,
19. Atonement as Missional Praxis: Baptism, Eucharist, and Prayer,

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Community Called Atonement 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
PLTK More than 1 year ago
An excellent overview of the multiple facets of atonement found in the Bible and a good counterpoint to the uni-dimensional approach too often used in evangelical churches today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago