a community called atonement

communitycalledatonement.jpga community called atonement, by scot mcknight.

i’ve been looking forward to scot’s book for a long time, as atonement theory has been one of the handful of theological areas i’ve really wrestled with in the past several years. it’s a particularly sticky area to wrestle in, when you speak to teenagers as i do; because i’m constantly needing to talk about the gospel. that’s great — i love talking about the gospel. but i don’t want to be dishonest about what i believe and only say words i’ve said in the past because they’re easy to say and no one will be bothered.

so… the basic premise of this book is that there are multiple metaphors of multiple theological explanations of atonement in scripture, and we need them all. penal substitutionary atonement (the primary understanding i grew up with for what took place at the cross) is only one of many helpful and important metaphors for understanding atonement. first, it was really helpful for me to think of these various explanations (theologies, you might call them) as metaphors. i guess i knew that; but it was a helpful reminder. evangelicals don’t tend to talk about penal substitution as a metaphor; it seems it’s usually talked about in more literal terms.

it was also helpful to get a better understanding on the other, equally-valid and important (not only important to us, but important to paul and in whole of scripture) metaphors. mcknight talks about them as clubs in a golf bag: one would never go golfing with one club. you need the whole bag, but each is useful (even best) in different circumstances. .

while not a purely academic book, it’s a weighty book in terms of language and ideas; so i took a couple months to pick through it, bit by bit (while readying other books alongside).

6 thoughts on “a community called atonement”

  1. Good! I just saw this in Cokesbury the other day and picked it up because it looked interesting. Now I’m moving it to the top of my read list – just because you talk about it here (oops – even above Duffy’s new book? Hmm, have to think about that). Thanks.

  2. Theories of atonement are so essential to our understanding to the gospel, and therefore to youth ministry. I am also studying this topic, but it seems to me that penal substitution has only recently been questioned as the basis for all other theories of atonement. I hope to also read McKnight’s book, as I respect his thoughtful theology. I would also note to all, however, that McKnight represents one view, and there are others to consider as well. Here are two I would read alongside it:

    The Nature of Atonement: Four Views (Schreiner, Boyd, Green, Reichenbach). IVP.

    Pierced for Our Transgressions (Jeffrey, Ovey, Sach) — a defense of the Penal Substituionary Theory.

  3. I’ve been reading A Community Called Atonement too, although I’m only about 1/3 of the way through it. I’d have to disagree with you Ben: I think that this concept of penal substitution as “the basis for all other theories of atonement” is a relatively new idea – over the past century or so. And I agree with what you’re saying Mark – understanding that atonement theories can only really be metaphors has been a very helpful thing.

  4. Have to agree with Geoff on this one. The penal substitutionary atonement view that floats around most evangelical churches in the last two centuries is actually a rather new development on an older idea. The older idea didn’t even strike a chord until Anselm of Canterbury. Other views were around much longer before that.

    I have to get my hands on a copy of this book. Anyone want to do a book swap?

  5. I have heard this claim several times, that the penal substitutonary theory is a modern invention. “Pierced for Our Trangressions” has a whole section tracing the theory back to the early church fathers and I am inclined to see the theory throughout Scripture. But, alas, I acknowledge that there is growing disagreement here…I would just encourage that everyone interested in this essential topic read broadly and consider all perspectives.

  6. I found McKnights understanding of the atonement to be thoughtful and refreshing. I have had a growing uneasiness with the modern church’s willingness to let our theological system explain scripture rather than the opposite. Didn’t find that to be true here, other than a couple of isolated spots (but I have to acknowlege that my own bias may creep in at times). We just completed our youth winter camp with the eikon/cracked eikon/restored eikon/agents of reconciliation as it’s theme and were very pleased with the level of undertanding the kids showed. Not to mention the interaction with each other that showed a willingness to live this important theology.

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