Here’s the way the metaphor works. Each “theory” of the atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like a round of golf. The way we proclaim, teach, or share the good news in any given situation should be adapted to the situation, just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter. You can, theoretically, still hit the ball out of a sand trap with a driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available?
Here’s the strength of the golf-bag metaphor: It asks us to stop being partisans for one particular theory of the atonement or another and actually to do ministry with the best tools at hand. McKnight is a peacemaker and a bridge builder, and that makes his book very welcome.
Plenty of discussion recently (some of it acrimonious) sounds very much like people saying that all the other clubs are better than your putter—and indeed that your putter is inherently defective. Meanwhile, others respond by defending the putter as the only club you need, since each round ends on the green. (“Drive for show, putt for dough.”)
Check out this recent news item from Christianity Today and you’ll see why McKnight’s book is a breath of fresh air.
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The main target of criticism has been “penal substitution,” a 16th-century Reformation development of Anselm’s 11th-century “satisfaction” theory of the atonement. In penal substitution, God the Son bears the penalty for our sins on the cross. The Son having paid our debt, God now views us as righteous because we belong to the Son.
Sometimes people stretch this language too far, and they divide the members of the Trinity, setting them against each other—as when they talk of the Son as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross.
Sometimes they talk about the paid penalty almost exclusively in individual terms. When John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed while listening to Luther’s preface to his commentary on the Romans, he grasped something important. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. ” But my salvation is not the full picture, and speaking only in individualistic terms can lead to a weak doctrine of the church and even an anemic doctrine of the atonement.
Some critics stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to nothing other than “divine child abuse”—an angry cosmic Father beating up his meek and helpless Son, an image which subtly leads us to tolerate the evils of domestic violence.
But McKnight recognizes that while the Scriptures do talk about Jesus bearing the penalty for our sins, they never divide the members of the Trinity at the Cross or bifurcate the God of love from the God of wrath. Whatever took place at the Cross and however we are to understand it, it is a unitary act of the whole Trinity. Thus John Stott could devote a chapter of his magnum opus, The Cross of Christ, to “The Self-Substitution of God.” And the Apostle Paul could write about God setting forth his own hilasterion. (This is a rare Greek word that literally means a thing that makes someone happy, but that is used as a technical term for the place on the Ark of the Covenant where on the Day of Atonement Israel’s chief priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood.) Paul clearly stresses that any appeasement is God’s self-appeasement. What is that? Self-appeasement? It is ironic even to use such language, but Paul wants to get at something bigger and ultimately more mysterious than the picture often portrayed by those who preach penal substitution.
In this tense context, McKnight recognizes that the best defenders of penal substitution do not fall into these traps.
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But A Community Called Atonement is not just a bridge-building book. It is an expand-your-vision book. To parody J. B. Phillips’s famous title, this book could have been called Your Atonement Is Too Small.
Classic evangelical writers tend to use the word atonement fairly narrowly to refer to what Christ Jesus accomplished in his death on the Cross. When most evangelical expositors wanted to talk about the bigger picture, they would use a phrase like “the plan of salvation.”
Unfortunately, when you use the word
Decades ago when Bob Webber stepped out of line and shocked the evangelical ranks by emphasizing the early church’s understanding of Christ’s activity as victory over the devil, death, and sin, he was asking his students to grasp this bigger picture.
Scot McKnight does something similar in A Community Called Atonement. He reviews the various metaphors, pictures, and theories of atonement implicit in Scripture and looks for the big picture. Like Webber, he finds it in the witness of the early church. Taking the themes expounded by the earliest fathers together—victory, ransom, recapitulation—he wraps them into one package called “identification for incorporation.” In Christ, God identified with the descendants of Adam to the point of experiencing an ignominious death and was raised to new life so that he, as the new Adam, might incorporate the fallen race into a new humanity. He became what we were that we might become what he is. That’s the summary notion that Athanasius used to express this view most succinctly.
This is the creator God re-creating, but doing it in such a way that he does not leave the old creation to languish in its sin and brokenness.
This broader approach to atonement requires a corporate understanding. And that is the point of McKnight’s title: A Community Called Atonement. It also requires a missional understanding.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that the result of God’s reconciling the world to himself is that he gives to us, the members of his church, a ministry of reconciliation. God’s reconciling action and our ambassadorial role are bound tightly together in Paul’s thought. God does not simply reconcile us to himself. He does this with the purpose of making us his agents of reconciliation. And McKnight’s call to see atonement in a bigger context is nothing other than a call to mission, mission that copies God.