Monday, December 22, 2008

My Review of A Community Called Atonement, by Scot McKnight

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I recently pubished a review of A Community Called Atonement, by Scot McKnight (Abingdon, 2007), in Horizons in Biblical Theology 30/2 (2008): pp. 194-196. The journal allows that "the author may post the post-print version of the contribution on his/her own personal website free of charge." That is a very generous allowance, which should be taken advantage of. Thus, here is my review (© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.1163/187122008X340932). Comments welcome:

Stephen L. Cook, Review of A Community Called Atonement. Living Theology 1. By Scot McKnight. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007. xiii. Pp. 177. $17.00.

The Library of Congress cataloging data for this volume identifies its scope to include both the “mission of the church” and “atonement.” The author decided to devote a great deal of attention to the overall goal of the gospel, which afforded him less than ideal working room for grappling with the inner dynamics of atonement. He made the decision with confidence, however, believing that theories and doctrines of atonement have little interest or value apart from a concomitant attention to how atonement heals the world.

McKnight aptly insists that the Western church has too long understood atonement to deal mostly with individual guilt and the liberation of the self. In contradistinction, he pushes for a more relational approach that sees atonement resolving the macroscopic dimensions of evil, renewing human community on earth. He repeatedly stresses that humans have become “cracked Eikons” in our love of God, self, others, and the world. Atonement directs itself at restoring us in God’s dynamically relational image.

McKnight’s overarching goal is to critique all one-sided theories of atonement and aim instead for a holistic approach. He offers the image of a bag of golf clubs as his central metaphor. A good golfer needs to use all fourteen clubs in the golf bag at one time or another. Players in the “golf game” of atonement must prepare to avail themselves of all relevant biblical metaphors and traditional atonement models. No single rhetoric can do justice to the deep reality of atonement.

In what at first blush appears a contradictory move, McKnight offers “identification for incorporation” as an overarching theme encompassing the many dimensions of atonement. In formulating this theme he draws heavily on the recapitulation model of Irenaeus and Athanasius with its emphasis on Jesus’ deep identification with us that lifts us up into God’s very life. He offers this theme as a comprehensive categorization, that is, an all embracive golf bag.

McKnight concludes with a major section on “Atonement as Praxis: Who Does Atonement?” He insists that theology must move into relevance for ministry. Specifically, he argues that any adequate understanding of atonement must mold ecclesial communities that work toward a healed world, “swimmingly happy,” “swamped” by justice. We participate in atonement by bringing others into contact with God’s reign.

McKnight plays it safe in this section, disavowing any thought that humans atone for one another. “Atonement is the work of God,” he insists (p. 118). Yet, against this, I would claim that some biblical texts do suggest humans may occasionally perform atoning work. Consider Moses’ offer of self-sacrifice in Exod 32:30-33; the actualization of Isa 53:11 in Dan 12:3; and the intriguingly enigmatic Col 1:24.

Although the volume appears in a series that aims for accessibility and eschews scholarly minutia, at points I wished for some supporting arguments and references. Most centrally, I missed a defense of the claim that Mark 10:45 links Jesus’ death with the slaughter of Passover lambs. Where do the Hebrew Scriptures describe the paschal lamb as a “ransom price for Israel” (p. 86)? The author is on firmer ground when he turns to link Mark 10:45 with the work of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53:11 reverberates with Mark 10:45 in its use of the peculiar idiom “the many.”

Again, I wonder how McKnight would defend his repeated claim that the paschal lamb dies a “substitutionary death that absorbs the judgment of God” (p. 88; cf. pp. 86, 89)? Even the more basic thesis that atonement devolves from the paschal meal cries out for a hearty defense. To support such a thesis, it would be important to spell out how by Jesus’ time Passover was virtually incorporated into the temple’s sacrificial system of atonement (since the lambs were ritually slaughtered by temple priests). It would help also to cite the view of Josephus that the original paschal lambs were sacrificed in an action of self-cleansing and purification (Antiquities 2.312). One might further mention that later Jewish Midrash depicts God making atonement for Israel and offering forgiveness through the paschal blood (Midrash Rabbah Exodus 15:12).

The Hebrew Bible’s Passover account offers suggestive connotations of atonement for an interpreter to develop, and McKnight rightly stresses how protection and liberation were central benefits of the lambs’ slaughter at the exodus. But how do these weighty results flow out of the spilling of lambs’ blood? The author does not explain adequately. He passes over a key paschal theme: God’s stark claim on the lives of all earth’s first-born creatures (see Exod 11:5; 12:12, 29; 13:2, 11-16). This “first-born phenomenon” pertains particularly to the lives of God’s own people, God’s own “first born” (Exod 4:22-26). The theme’s prominence suggests that the Passover moves God’s people to an utter submission to God’s sovereign claim on their life breath (Exod 13:16).

I propose that the lambs’ blood smeared on lintel and doorposts focuses God’s awful claim to all earthly life on every Hebrew household, drawing all occupants to an unreserved, self-sacrificing submission to God’s liberation. There is no “absorption” of divine judgment here. There is, rather, a focusing and actualization of God’s dissevering claim on God’s people, sealing their interconnection with God. From a canonical perspective, one must compare the covenant-forming rite of circumcision (Exod 4:24-26).

One whole area not touched on in this book is the possible contribution of social-scientific theory and ethnography in elucidating the phenomenon of atonement. Omitting reference to cross-cultural study surely leaves some helpful “golf clubs” out of McKnight’s metaphorical golf bag. For example, the theory (of René Girard) that the atonement destroyed the mesmerizing power of scapegoating violence could well help us penetrate the theological witness of Psalm 22. Again, the theory (of Georges Bataille) that ritual sacrifice atones through radiating a pure intimacy to all onlookers might help us explore the renewal of human mutuality that appears in Isaiah 53. Or again, the theory that a sacrificial victim can participate in the sanctity of transcendent holiness (Edward A. Westermarck) appears to me to help us understand the Suffering Servant’s manifestation of God’s towering otherness across Second Isaiah.

None of this should detract from what McKnight actually does accomplish in this book, namely, a fresh revival and integration of the church’s traditional approaches to atonement. Historically, some approaches have been pursued in unfortunate directions, but McKnight insists they all have something to offer. He even defends penal substitution as a legal golf club, arguing against the current liberationist critique that it turns God into a violent and abusive parent. A respectful approach to this hotly contested language game must keep its essential Trinitarian context front and center. It must envision God sacrificially swallowing God’s own divine wrath, not venting it on an external individual.

Stephen L. Cook
Virginia Theological Seminary


Blogger spankey said...

Thanks to your publisher and thanks to you, Dr. Cook, for posting this. A Community Called Atonement is on my ever growing list of books to read, and I found your review very helpful in prioritizing. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Tue Dec 23, 07:51:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Scot McKnight said...

Thanks Stephen for this accurate and kind review. You've given me plenty to think about with your expert angle from the OT side, including how to move from "ransom" to Passover (isn't the Passover the liberation event of Israel?) and absorption of wrath (isn't that was the Avenging angel does?), but I hadn't seen some of your implications about God taking possession of the people ... very good ideas.

Thanks again.



Tue Dec 23, 10:57:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Scot. Thanks so much for visiting, and for commenting! I'm tickled! Yes, I did certainly agree with you that the Passover spelled Israel's huge liberation into God's service. And yes, certainly the avenging angel "passes over" the Passover homes, sparing them a literal death. The term "absorption" was what puzzled me, yet maybe I'm hearing all sorts of conotations there that you're not intending. In any event, thank you for your book, and I'm glad it's selling so well. Hope to meet you at SBL sometime soon! Merry Christmas! ---Stephen

Tue Dec 23, 11:30:00 AM GMT-5  

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