Sunday, April 27, 2008

Scot McKnight: A Community Called Atonement

I've just got around to re-reading Scot McKnight's volume A Community Called Atonement from the Living Theology series edited by Tones Jones (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007). To put this book in context, the great writings on the atonement by a previous generation of great scholars (Leon Morris, J.I. Packer, and John Stott) focused on defending key doctrines like penal substitution, propitiation, and justification over and against an onslaught of assaults. However, today the battle ground has shifted some what. The doctrine wars have been fought and won (for the most part) within evangelicalism, but now the challenge is "what difference does it make?". The question evangelicals in their 20s and 30s are asking is not, does the Bible teach penal substitution, but what mileage does one get out of believing in it? A generation of young Christians (and I count myself among them) are dissatisfied with bumper sticker slogans like "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven" which sounds like an apology for a person with right doctrinal beliefs but lives no different from unchurched Harry or pagan Peter. That's a fraud and pomo folk can smell it a mile off. My Theology lecturer at college once to the story of a church that held an evangelistic outreach event but the congregation failed to invite anyone to it. When a survey was done to find out why no-one invited their non-Christian friends along, one person answered that "the gospel was not working in my life so I thought it would be a sham to invite someone else to consider it". This, I reckon, is the problem; what difference does the atonement make in life and living? Scot's book then is a welcomed corrective on two fronts: (a) he situates the atonement in the wider span of redemptive-history as he relates the cross to the Adam/Israel story, to Jesus' kingdom message, to the resurrection, and to Pentecost, and he also shows theTrinitarian nature of the atonement as well; and (b) he demonstrates how the atonment is transformative at both the personal and communal level.

Scot clearly believes in penal substitution (PS). The question is whether PS is merely one club in the golf bag, or whether PS is the golf bag itself from which the various clubs are drawn out of. Scot argues that no single theory of the atonement is the "fairest one of all" and all are part of the golfer's (i.e. Christian's soteriolgoical) repertoirre. I am sympathetic to the arguments of I. Howard Marshall, Thomas Schreiner, and Mike Ovey et. al. that PS is the golf bag itself or the central atonement theme which drives all the others like Passover sacrifice, Christus Victor, Reconciliation, etc. However, the looming doubt in my mind is created by the Book of Acts where PS does not appear at all, rather, Luke focuses on forgiveness of sins, status reversal, and the gift of the Spirit. Why does this deposit of apostolic preaching contain so little reference to the cross let alone PS if PS is THE central doctrine of the New Testament? Scot is fairly well balanced overall here. He rejects the allegation that PS amounts to child abuse but also asks advocates of PS to listen to their critics. He adds that the atonement needs to be orientated in the Trinitarian life of God and the atonement reflects both God's wrath and love. For Scot though, the bag that holds all the clubs together (recapitulation, ransom, satisfaction, substitution, representation, and penal substitution) is what he calls Identification and Incorporation which he gleams from Heb. 2.14-18 and is probably best understood as a modified verions of the recapitulation theory.

On justification, Scot maintains that justification is indeed "forensic" and he freely uses the concept of "imputation". What is added by Scot, however, are his observations that justification relates to the story of Adam-Israel-Jesus, it brings Gentiles into one family with Jews, justification is part of God's act of making the whole world right, and he gives a polite nod to the New Perspective on Paul in so far as that justification needs to be given a more relational understanding.

The final section of the book, "Atonement as Praxis: Who Does Atonement?" is worth the price of the book and is well worth reading if you're getting ready for Easter. Scot covers topics such as Atonement and Fellowship, Atonement and Justice, Atonement and Mission, Atonement and Living the Story, and Atonement and Baptism, Eurcharist, and Prayer. So put down your Left Behind novel and stop watching "Lost" and read this section if anything this year.

There are one or two things I'd tweak in this book. For instance, I'd like more on sin as rebellion and I wonder if Scot pushes the broken eikon thing a bit too far at times. But otherwise this is a classic resource on the atonement, it is eminently readable but certainly not simplistic. Anyone interested in asking the question "what difference does it make?" should read this book.


John Lyons said...

"The doctrine wars have been fought and won (for the most part) within evangelicalism, but now the challenge is "what difference does it make?"

I'd love for you to expand on the first part of this statement, Mike. Given the recent fuss about it, in what sense has 'penal substitution' won the day in evangelicalism?

John Smuts said...

I'd echo John Lyons' question - tell us more ...

... plus a question of my own, if PS is just one of the clubs (and not the bag), is it possible to play a round (of golf!?) without getting it out of the bag?