A professor I had years ago showed how you can parse the word “atonement” to get at its meaning: At-one-ment. When humanity parted from God we became separated from God, from our neighbor, from nature, and even from ourselves. To use a Hebrew concept, shalom was lost. Atonement is the means by which God restores shalom and reintegrates all things in himself.
Lately within Evangelical environs there has been an intensifying battle over different models of atonement. Which model is the right one? Which is the controlling idea or metaphor? A number of academics in Mainline denominations dismiss the idea of atonement altogether, claiming it evolved after Christ and was not part of his self-understanding. The comment by Presbyterian Church (USA) theologian Delores Williams captured the spirit with her statement fourteen years ago, “I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all; I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” (Why Did Jesus Die?)
Scot McKnight has just published a book called A Community Called Atonement. McKnight is a first rate biblical scholar at North Park University and the man behind the curtain at the always engaging Jesus Creed blog. Using his exceptional writing skills, McKnight takes what can be a very tedious idea and brings it alive.
McKnight does a wonderful job of rescuing the debate from a narrow abstract battle to make this or that model prevail and relocates the discussion in the larger picture of God’s mission in the world. Atonement is not an end in itself. Atonement is a means toward accomplishing a mission; the mission of restoring of that which has been lost. McKnight locates the central themes of this restoration in the concepts of justice (mishpat), righteousness (tesedeq) and shalom. (128)
After exploring the many models and metaphors of atonement, McKnight writes, “I suggest that we think of atonement as identification for incorporation.” (107) “His (Jesus’) act of atonement has a dual focus in light of the enormity of the problem with cracked Eikons: identification in order to remove sins and victory in order to liberate those who are incorporate into him so they can form the new community where God’s will is realized.” (107-108)
But one of the most important emphases McKnight makes is the missional aspect of atonement. To put it in my own words, we have not simply been saved from something, namely sin. We have been saved to someone who incorporates us into community and sends out in mission to the world. Our mission is to be living testimony of the at-one-ment that is to come and invite others into that at-one-ment. That is my shorthand. He says it much better. I think the book is a very helpful contribution not only to the atonement debate but also to missiology.
If you have not read a lot about atonement issues I suspect the book could be a little dense in places. That is not a critique of the author but rather an acknowledgement of the complexity of the topic. McKnight, as usual, does a great job of breaking it down for those of us don’t breathe the rarified air of the theological academy. If you are looking for detailed description of each atonement model and a point-by-point analysis, then this is not the right book. If you want a sound biblical reflection on what atonement means for your life and the life of the Church, I highly recommend this book.