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Sep 05, 2007


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Dan Anderson-Little


Sounds like a good book on a topic that is creating division not only in evangelical circles but mainline ones as well. I am, however, concerned when you say this: "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." How many is "a number"? Which academics (besides Williams whose statement about the atonement was made at a conference (Re-Imagining) that has become a flashpoint for conservatives in the PCUSA and therefore I do not believe it "captures a spirit") are making these statements and in what context? Are Presbyterian academics on the whole abandoning the doctrine of atonement? One could imply that from your statement. For me, the fight is not unlike that being had in evangelical circles--not is there atonement in Jesus, but how do we understand it and describe it. The Confession of 1967 is helpful at this point (9.09): "God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work." In my experience at the Presbytery level, the fight over atonement isn't whether we believe in it at all, but how we believe in it; although it is also my experience that when one does not embrace "substitutionary atonement" as the way to understand atonement, then one is dismissed as not believing in atonement at all. Is it possible that that is what Delores Williams was saying 14 years ago? That "that atonement"--one that posits that God requires a violent sacrifice in order to save us from our sin is not a helpful metaphor for our time? Thanks again for wide range of posts and your willingness to push in many directions.


Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Dan.

This conversation does get tricky. Some have tried to reduce the atonement down to substitution, or penal substitution, only. Others recoil at that and say there are other images/metaphors that better capture what has happened. They reject substitution in favor of a better metaphor. McKnight rejects the reductionistic tendency of many and the denial of substitution by others. He sees substitution as one of the key metaphors that informs our understanding of atonement.

Toward the end of the book McKnight writes briefly about the contribution of differing models/metaphors for atonement (recapitulation, ransom/victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation, penal substitution) and their contribution to a complete understanding, all the time rejecting that any one metaphor can holistically capture the larger reality. He writes about the unmistakable prefiguring of Christ’s work in the pure sacrificial lambs in the ritual sacrifices of the Jews that substitute for sinful people. He also writes:

So I conclude that the Bible does teach penal substitution: Jesus identified with us so far “all the way down” that he died out death, so that we, being incorporated into him, might partake in his glorious, life-giving resurrection to a new life. He died instead of us (substitution); he died a death that was the consequence of sin (penal). But, here again, this is not enough; it is just not enough to express atonement through the category of penal substitution.

If we limit atonement to this category, we have an atonement that is nothing more than a important theodicy: it explains how God can eliminate sin justly, but it only explains the wrath-to-death problem, and that is not all there is to atonement. (113)

He also writes:

When a theory of atonement contends that the cross is not central to the plan of the atoning God, that theory dissolves the only story the church has ever known. (61)

“Violent sacrifice” may not be the best starting place for a conversation in our age but it is an indispensable metaphor for a full orbed appreciation of the full reality of what God has done and is doing in the world. We are zeroed in here on substitution and I have just quoted McKnight on a couple of passages about substitution. That does a great injustice to his book because his whole point is to affirm all the biblical metaphors without reducing it to any one. In short, I think he would say that we have lost the biblical understanding of atonement if we deny the metaphor of substitution, but we also lose it if we try to reduce atonement to substitution. That is my take as well.



thanks for this review and the helpful comment following. this one is definitely going on my to read list.

Michael W. Kruse

It is a great book. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Samuel Lago

Looks like very exciting and very neccesary stuff! Looking forward to it.

Michael W. Kruse

I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Charles @ ReformationUCC.org

Thanks for your take on McKnight's new book. I have to admit that he lost me when, in my opinion, he misrepresented the reformed faith or "Calvinism" as he preferred to minimize it. I'll try to approach this new work with an open mind.

Another book I'd suggest that has a great potential to energize the church at large is David Bryant's work on Christology called "CHRIST IS ALL". It's excellent in that it is an easily accessible work on Christology for nontechnical readers that synthesizes the spectrum of biblical teaching in what I'd call a doxological format that genuinely evokes prayer and praise... that's saying something for a "theology" book! Likewise, it helps the reader "take the message to the street". It represents the pinnacle of his work and I pray it will have a broad impact on the church.

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