“Atonement Wars”? Let’s Hope Not.
A book review of Scot McKnight’s A Community called Atonement by Brian McLaren.
Although “the emergent conversation” happens largely online and through informal gatherings and off-beat conferences (what some have called un-conventions), it also happens in the more standard format of books. Some of these books – like Mark Scandrette’s recent Soul Graffiti: Making a Life in the Way of Jesus – are artistic and literary, combining memoir and religious nonfiction. Others are multi-author works like An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, bringing together a wide variety of voices to explore a general subject through short essays. Still others are more scholarly works, like Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, which, even though Peter speaks in the academic tongue of polysyllabism on many occasions, has an uncharacteristically playful tone for a “serious” book.
Joining this creative and well-written stable of books is Scot McKnight’s new A Community Called Atonement, part of the new Living Theology series with Abingdon Press, edited by Tony Jones. The series aims to deal with “real theology” on a deep level, but in a way that is approachable and accessible to a wide range or readers, not just professionals in the academy. Here are four words I would use to describe this important debut book in this important new series by this important theologian.
First, it is timely. The book comes just as some scholars in the U.S. may be tempted to sharpen their pens to join a westward expansion of an atonement war begun in England over the last few years. That conflict began as my friends Steve Chalke and Alan Mann found themselves in hot water for raising provocative questions about a popular theory of atonement in their book The Lost Message of Jesus. Some Evangelicals, largely ignoring the main point of the book — the good news of the kingdom of God — said Chalke and Mann no longer belonged in their tribe because for them, Evangelical means a) subscribing to that particular theory of atonement, and b) equating that theory with the gospel. For a thoughtful online response to this controversy, I’d recommend Bishop N. T. Wright’s recent article .
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., a number of Evangelical authors have also been raising questions about atonement. Among them are Dallas Willard, whose The Divine Conspiracy critiques what he calls “the gospel of sin management,” Hans Boersma, whose Violence, Hospitality and the Cross exemplifies a hospitable Reformed tradition (and is highly regarded by McKnight), and Joel Green and Mark Baker, whose Recovering the Scandal of the Cross seeks to counter the popular (some might say dominant) reduction of atonement understanding to one theory. More recently, Mark Baker edited Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, to which I contributed and which shows how various metaphors and theories of atonement are being preached in churches today. Each of these books has stirred up enthusiastic support (and I am among the enthusiastic supporters) along with some strong criticism.
For Scot McKnight to step into this tense terrain may recall the old maxim about fools rushing into territory avoided by angels, but it’s not only fools who rush into conflict: peacemakers are also drawn there, and this is the spirit in which McKnight enters the fray. Like an ambassador arriving on a troubled shore hoping to avert violent conflict, McKnight comes not to fire salvos or drop bombs on behalf of one side or the other, but to invite all sides to the table seeking better understanding.
That brings a second word to mind regarding the book: irenic. McKnight isn’t advocating a mushy “let’s all get along” evasion of the issues, which are many and important. But he is seeking to practice what we preach whenever we preach atonement: that God calls us to reconcile with God, ourselves, one another, and all creation. That means that the way we treat one another when we disagree about atonement can’t be separated from what we preach when we preach atonement. Theory and praxis are profoundly inseparable. This conviction helps explain why people with whom I imagine McKnight disagrees are treated in these pages gently, respectfully. McKnight prefers to “catch people being right” over exposing where he thinks they’re wrong, and thus seeks to build a community of atonement through his manner of addressing the issue. Normal academic discourse does not require this irenic tone, but in keeping with his theme, McKnight is seeking to follow a higher standard.
I would also call this book comprehensive, weaving together many threads of atonement theology in one tapestry. The book relies on a golfer’s metaphor rather than one from weaving. One is glad for many clubs, McKnight says, because each is useful in various situations. One would hate to have to drive with a putter or putt with a sand wedge. Similarly, various theories of atonement serve various functions in various settings according to McKnight, which is why all should be kept in the bag and used appropriately to the situation.
To be comprehensive, McKnight has to see the game differently than some for whom faithful golf may have become a matter of “using the five iron in all situations from the first tee to the eighteenth hole.” So he offers helpful ways of describing the “game” as a whole – speaking of the restoration of cracked eikons and identification for incorporation.
One more descriptor: the book is evocative. It lightly touches a number of important subjects along the way which are fascinating but tangential to this book’s purpose. Among important topics McKnight opens up in ways that leave this reader hungry for more are the centrality of metaphor in theology (p. 36 ff) and the sociopragmatic dimensions of our theologizing about atonement (p. 44 ff). Perhaps they will become future contributions to the Living Theology series.
We could conjure up many examples of the socio-pragmatic outworking of atonement theology – a reason to take this subject very seriously. For example, one might argue that an exclusive focus on one theory of the atonement could result in an administration that approves of military invasions and even torture. Similar thought experiments could be launched in a number of areas from ecology to poverty to the treatment of undocumented refugees. Although McKnight doesn’t get into these kinds of specifics (nor should he in a book of this sort), he does devote a very important chapter (16) to the relationship between a well-formed atonement theology and the practice of justice.
We have now come full circle to the word timely again, since the previous hypothetical situation is, for American Christians, less far-fetched than it may appear. At this critical time in history, I believe we need, not atonement wars (or other kinds of theo-combat), but rather mature and generative conversation on atonement, so we can together go back to the Scriptures and in their light savor the rich meaning of Christ’s saving work. A Community Called Atonement joins books by Willard, Boersma, Green, Baker, and others as an excellent and accessible resource for this conversation, informed by both current and historic scholarship.
For those who persist in claiming that people in the emergent conversation are unconcerned with truth and morality, or are only concerned with candles and guitar distortion, this book is one more demonstration that something robust and material is going on. The fruit of this conversation, of course, must go beyond books. Informed by this timely, irenic, comprehensive, and evocative book’s content and inspired by its manner and tone, we in the emergent conversation must keep building the community called atonement which Jesus gave his life to make possible and real and transformative in our world. May it be so.
Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, and former pastor active in the emergent conversation. His next book, Everything Must Change.