A Community Called Atonement
Many theologians have attempted to address the doctrine of atonement and deal with any inherent weaknesses found in that doctrine. McKnight however, in his book A Community Called Atonement, builds a doctrine of atonement where the church, rather than the individual, becomes the central focus of atonement. This makes his thesis stunningly different from other theologians.
McKnight best summarizes the purpose of the book in this way. “This book is dedicated to deconstructing one-sided theories of the atonement. It is also dedicated to demonstrating that the cross is inseparable from the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the ecclesial focus of the work of God. And this book is dedicated to deconstructing simplistic, individualistic theories of the atonement”. The reason why the doctrine of atonement is not bringing positive change in Christians is because the church has failed to incorporate all the metaphors for atonement into a coherent whole. If the church gets their understanding of atonement right, then “the gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create. The kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach.”
McKnight starts his book by laying the foundation on what the Kingdom of God is. The Kingdom of God is the new society “in which the will of God is established to transform all of life” . Atonement then has to be 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.” . Atonement brings reconciliation with God and extends to our relationship with each other. McKnight goes on to discuss the mutual interdependence within the Trinity and how human beings were created as “Eikons” (images) of God to be in relationship with the Triune God and to be His representative in the world. McKnight sums up the biblical understanding of humans in this way. Humans “are created as Eikons, cracked in their present Eikonic struggle, shaped into Christ-like Eikons as they follow Jesus, and destined to be conformed to Christ in union with God and communion with others in eternity.”
McKnight then goes on to look at the different atonement metaphors found in the Bible to paint a holistic picture of what atonement is. He runs through the various metaphors for atonement (recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation, and penal substitution) and suggests that each of these fits comfortably under the larger umbrella “identification for incorporation” .
McKnight ends his book by suggesting ways in which this holistic understanding of atonement could be lived out. The church is called to embody and extend God’s atoning work by seeking the holistic welfare of the society it is in, to stand for justice that is both restorative and relational, and to be part of God’s mission in the world.
A notable strength is that even though McKnight is a reputable New Testament scholar, he has written a doctrinal book on atonement that is brief yet comprehensive, clear yet deep, contemplative yet practical.
Another strength is the way McKnight brings together the various perspectives on atonement and puts them together, thus presenting an inspiring picture of atonement. This picture of atonement not only leaves you in awe of the doctrine, but also inspired to live out the doctrine as a community of faith in a broken world.
McKnight is right to highly commend the communal nature of atonement. However the need for individual atonement must be seen as the first step towards experiencing ecclesial atonement. To state “atonement cannot be restricted to saving individuals” implies that individual atonement is subservient to ecclesial atonement. This may not be the intention of McKnight and he may be reacting to the over-emphasis of individual salvation. McKnight states that eternity is “so corporate that individuals simply are unrecognized” . The truth of the matter is that even though atonement is designed to create a new community, it must start with individual atonement.
Another issue is regarding atonement as the completed work of Jesus. McKnight says “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” . This implies that the work of atonement is not complete and the church is called to finish the work of atonement. Even though McKnight insists, “atonement is the work of God” , readers could be easily misled to believe that the work of atonement was not completed at the cross and the church is called to complete the work. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, by his own blood, obtained eternal redemption for us (Hebrews 9: 12). Instead of the church continuing the work of atonement, it would be more accurate to say that the church is proclaiming this atonement by embodying and extending the completed work of atonement in a broken world.
I wonder if McKnight’s illustration of a golfer with his bag of clubs is helpful because it portrays an image of the golfer using one club at a time even though he has the rest of the clubs in the bag. By giving this illustration McKnight is going against his own thesis of portraying a holistic view of atonement by creating a compartmentalized view of atonement.
Despite the reservations stated in this review, McKnight is correct in calling the church towards a more holistic view of atonement. The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians explaining that the result of God reconciling the world to himself is that the church now has a ministry of reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5: 16-21). God’s work of reconciliation and our ministry of reconciliation is very much tied together in the atonement. McKnight’s call to a broader approach to atonement is a necessary message for the church today.