Monday, December 22, 2014

Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement

'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.'

That's a quote from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided by Faith, which Scot McKnight utilizes to introduce his book: A Community Called Atonement. The context of the quote is the observation that 90% of American churches contain 90% people of the same colour.

McKnight suggests that those 'processes' have much to do with the way churches 'package' the 'gospel' (p. 5). In this book McKnight does not fully address our church-dynamics but aims to bring a full-bodied approach to understanding the gospel so churches can think straight.

One way to talk about how we understand the gospel is to talk about 'atonement', or, the question of how the gospel works' (p. 1). Any attempt to do this must be done with a certain 'postmodern humility,' McKnight believes, because we can only reach into God's side of the story by use of metaphor, and because we can only speak of our side from within our limited contexts. Since no biblical or traditional atonement metaphor appears intent on supplying a comprehensive or exclusive account of the gospel of Christ, instead of looking for a 'winner' McKnight makes the not-so-modest attempt to hold them all together (ch. 11).

The attempt is an interesting one, and McKnight does it well. He begins in part one with Jesus, humanity as the image (or Eikon) of God, with sin and eternity, and with church and Christian practice--the idea being that the gospel is all about these things. In part two he examines the different 'moments' of the atonement--from Christmas to Cross to Easter to Pentecost--arguing that none says all that needs to be said, and giving a compelling picture of the gospel and its intended effects.

In part three McKnight examines the different ways the gospel story was narrated early on--first in the implications of Jesus himself (who framed the events of passion week in terms of Passover and liberation), then in the explanations of the apostle Paul (which serve up a well-told account of today's debate about 'justification'), and then in the reflections of early church theologians Irenaeus and Athanasius (who spoke of it in terms of God's 'recapitulation' of dead humanity).

Rather than put them in competition, after a short synopsis of atonement theories, McKnight coins a phrase which he thinks sums them up: The accomplishment of the gospel is 'identification for incorporation' (107). Whether we're talking about Jesus ransoming from death, satisfying his own judgment of sin, substituting as a punishment for sin, representing us before God, recapitulating us to our proper life, or even providing a moral example of self-giving love, it all adds up to identification for incorporation:

'Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.' 

As McKnight explains it, Jesus' death on the cross (and perhaps descent into hell) are the extent of God with us; his identification 'all the way down' (110). Furthermore (to use a Barthian turn of phrase), Jesus' resurrection and sending of the Spirit are the extent of us with God; an incorporation into God's own life which goes all the way into eternity and all the way into our lives here on earth.

Normally a book on the atonement might end here, except that McKnight wants to stress the point about incorporation; about our side; about atonement as an act of God which has personal and social implications in the here and now. These implications are not subsidiary byproducts but constitutive elements of the work of the gospel (126). That's not to say that the effect of the gospel depends upon our enactment of it, but that there is a 'potential performative reciprocity in the redemptive work of God' (29).

In other words, the gospel gives birth to a new humanity--on earth as in heaven--complete with new fellowship, just praxis, and mission for a whole world. Thus the book's title: implying that atonement does not end at a divine declaration of our 'savedness' but enfolds us as participants in ours and creation's redemption.

This is all well and good--and I do recommend the book highly--but I was left with a couple practical concerns. The first is that forgiveness is considered synonymous with reconciliation (30). If you think about the difference between forgiving someone and healing a relationship with them, you will recognize how that conflation of terms might collapse the participatory action of this newfound atonement community in all kinds of unhelpful ways.

The second concern can be seen if we go back to that first quote above. If attentiveness to our gospel 'processes' are important, I think there are problems implicit in the conclusion. At some point late in the book the language begins to slip so that those who are being atoned become not only participants but agents of God's atoning work. 'Missional work is atoning', McKnight will say in one place (134). Or 'the local community offers atonement,' he'll say in another (154). In other words, it is not just God doing the atoning anymore.

This isn't really what McKnight means--at the end of his book he's really just trying to point us in the right direction and isn't going into a lot of detail. It is a concern of trajectory, however, and not a small one. If our gospel-talk removes attention from God as the primary ongoing author and perfecter not only of creation but of our lives of faith, then the mission will curve in on itself. We've seen this time and time again, and that's what the initial quote was addressing. If not in the homogeneous enclaves of market-driven church growth movements, then in the colonialist enterprises of global mission efforts--we say 'thanks for the gospel, God, we'll take it from here.'

McKnight doesn't intend to leave it that way, in fact the final chapter talks about baptism, Eucharist and prayer, but these are not drawn out in the ways that make them so crucial. I hope this leaves readers of McKnight's very good book begging for something more; something to answer that quote with which we began; something to say what kind of a community the atonement has made.

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