Review: A Community Called Atonement By Scot McKnight

January 11th, 2010


By Matt Cleaver The people of Emergent Village have “always wanted to talk about the best theology around, and to do it in ways that are approachable for many people.”  Their Living Theology series is their attempt to do just that.  Scot McKnight, New Testament scholar at North Park University and blogger extraordinaire, has the prominent task of writing the initial book in the series with his A Community Called Atonement. 

McKnight is trying to do two things in the book.  First, he uses a golfing metaphor to describe his theological task. In the game of golf, even though one might have a favorite club, it takes a full bag of clubs in order to play the game well.  McKnight thinks that atonement theology has been playing with only one “club”–penal substitution–to the exclusion of the others.  McKnight does not write negatively about penal substitution, but includes it as one of many historical metaphors that have been used to describe the atonement.  McKnight then tries to find a “bag” that will be able to hold all the “clubs.”   His second task is to show how the church is called to live out the reality of atonement and become a community of atonement. 

The book is broken down into four sections each of which asks a different question about the atonement.  The first section asks “Where to begin?” McKnight begins in multiple places: Jesus, God, humans, sin, eternity, the church, and practice.  Each of these factors is at work in the atonement.  In order to have a balanced view, we must keep all of these things in mind.  The second section asks “With Which Image?” and describes the role of metaphors, which is perhaps the strongest chapter in the whole book:

But the metaphor is not the thing.  The metaphor gives the reader or hearer an imagination of the thing, a vision of the thing, a window onto the thing, a lens through which to look in order to see the thing.  Metaphors take us there, but they are not “there.” (38)

The rest of the section describes moments of atonement.  Many will think that the cross is the defining moment of atonement, but McKnight also includes the incarnation, Easter, and Pentecost as moments of atonement as well.  Part Three examines the stories of Jesus, Paul, and Irenaeus and Athanasius to see how these different people described the atonement.  The last chapter in the section is the climax of the book, where McKnight reveals a “bag” that he believes is big enough to hold “all the clubs”: identification for incorporation. Drawing from Hebrews 2:14-18, “Jesus identifies with humans [and]… incorporates humans in his destruction of death and the devil and liberates those held captive by being a faithful high priest for them.”

The final section of the book attempts to show the practical outworking of what it might mean to live as a community of atonement. Essentially, McKnight repackages common Christian practices like justice, fellowship, and the sacraments as atoning acts.  While he may be correct, this section seemed to end abruptly and lack in creativity.  Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I was expecting to find some original thoughts about being a community of atonement. 

Though written to an audience of “many people,” the book still might be a bit heavy on theological jargon for some.  Familiarity with McKnight’s book Embracing Grace would help the reader understand his perspective.  In my judgment, McKnight’s strength in this book is not providing the practical outworking of atonement, as the title suggests, but in clearing the debris from many years of evangelicals being wed to one particular atonement theory and giving proper balance to the way we think of atonement.  It is a valuable book, but not for the reason the title might suggest.   


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