Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- part 5

In the last section of A Community Called Atonement, Scott McKnight moves away from the theological examination of atonement and explores the social aspects of understanding atonement as a way of life for the church community. Living out this theological understanding is what he calls “Atonement as Missional Praxis”.

The first area of this missional praxis McKnight explores is Fellowship. Being a Reformed theologian, he grounds this understanding of fellowship in God’s life in Trinity. The Trinity exists is perichoresis: an equal, mutually beneficial relationship with one another where no member dominates another. While each member of the Trinity is interdependent with one another, they each have a strong sense of self-identity within the relationship. McKnight takes the Trinitarian life as the model for the human community. In this way the life of the human community can be atoning because it reflects the life of the divine community.

Justice is the next area of missional praxis. McKnight is careful to define justice as God’s standard for human behavior instead of by what he sees as secular theories of justice that are not rooted in an understanding of God. McKnight spends most of this chapter discussing what he believes is God’s standard for humanity as revealed in the Bible, specifically in passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Minor Prophets, Matthew, Acts, and Ephesians. McKnight understands justice in the human community as restoring “cracked Eikons” (imperfect bearers of God’s image) to more accurately reflect their created purpose.

Mission itself is an area of missional praxis. McKnight talks about this by contrasting what he calls “missional” and “attractional” ecclesiologies (theologies of church). An attractional ecclesiology is designed to get as many people in the door as possible in hopes of saving the greatest number of souls. The end result is the church being a large, complex organization. A missional ecclesiology, on the other hand, is one where the church seeks to minimize itself and seeks to equip its members to live missional lives. McKnight defines a missional ecclesiology as the church existing for the world. This missional focus is evangelistic because it seeks to show the self emptying love of God in every action.

Another aspect of practicing atonement as missional praxis is living out the story of the Word. McKnight is suggesting that Scripture itself plays an atoning role in the life of the community. He contrasts his vision of Scripture’s role in communal life against Bibliodolatry: giving the Bible itself a place coequal to (or even above) God. He rightly points out that the Bible is a book produced by the church (sorry, but the King James version did not float down from Heaven) and neither can exist apart from the other. Scripture does not exist to be probed for secrets and codes, but to shape the lives of individuals and communities and direct them to having a missional focus.

The practices of baptism, Eucharist, and prayer also play into the concept of atonement as missional praxis. Baptism is symbolic of purification from Sin and incorporation into the life of the community, and therefore embodies atonement. Similarly, the Eucharist is the sign of our continuing incorporation into the Body of Christ and our missional calling as part of that body. The Eucharistic prayers recall the death and Resurrection of Jesus- the central narrative of atonement. Likewise, prayer is a continual reminder of this incorporation because we are privileged to have direct communication with God, which would not be possible without atonement.

With these reflections McKnight ends the book rather abruptly. There is no proper conclusion, formal or informal. This is rather appropriate because while I found the premise of this book very exciting and certain parts extremely satisfying, ultimately I found that the project never really came to fruition. Instead of letting the merits of each atonement story stand on their own and interact with one another freely, McKnight succumbed to the pressure of providing his own definitive answer to which narrative is most useful. The criterion he sets for the conversation greatly privilege the penal substitution theory of atonement, and ultimately serves to destroy the collegial tone McKnight sets out at the beginning. If he had left out Part III of the book and had an actual conclusion to the whole work he would have been much better off.

As it is, A Community Called Atonement is a book that had tons of potential but never fully realized it. Perhaps it reflects the ultimate fate of the whole Emerging Church phenomenon: lots of great potential but no one is ever really able to see it through? And is this necessarily such a bad thing? For its many flaws, McKnight’s book serves as great fodder for discussion and debate over the place of atonement in the future of the church.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- part 4

In the next section McKnight concludes the theological portion of his study by saying which atonement story/stories are most suitable for the twenty-first century church. He picks up the image he used at the beginning of the book: each atonement theory is an individual golf club, and that different “shots” (situations, contexts, etc.) are required to adequately play the game. Now McKnight is suggesting a “bag” in which all the clubs can fit. In doing so McKnight lays his Reformed theology cards on the table quite clearly. I’ll do my best to lay out McKnight’s arguments first and save most of my commentary for the end.

McKnight raises the interesting question of what Jesus thought about his own death. He rightly points out that nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus interpreting his death in the same language used by Paul and later New Testament writers. (This is assuming, of course, that all the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are genuinely his and not those of the gospel writers themselves. In other words, perhaps the understandings of Jesus’ death in the gospels are more adequately seen as those of the evangelists and not of Jesus himself.)

McKnight suggests that because Jesus chose to die during the Passover celebration (he assumes Jesus chose the time of his death) instead of during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we should view his death in light of liberation as well as atonement. As the Hebrew slaves painted their doorframes with lambs’ blood to avoid God’s wrath and was the final act before their liberation from slavery, so Jesus’ atoning death protects us from God’s wrath against Sin and liberates us from slavery to Sin and death.

McKnight also suggests that we consider atonement in light of what he calls “Paul’s Story: The Courtroom of God” (claiming to draw from the “New Perspective” on Paul articulated by EP Sanders, James Dunn, and NT Wright). Most of us are familiar with this basic juridical metaphor: we are judged guilty by God, but Jesus trades his innocence for our guilt, thereby making us justified before God. McKnight argues that the message of the Reformers has been overly individualized and that we also need to understand the communal dimension of justification by faith and not works.

What McKnight suggests as the “bag” in which we can carry all of our atonement theory “clubs” is the Recapitulation Theory of the early theologians Irenaeus and Athanasius. McKnight says that Recapitulation is the common thread among all the subsequent atonement theories. Recapitulation takes the idea of Jesus as the “new Adam” and sees the entire Christ-event as a cosmic do-over for humanity. Adam and Jesus were both created perfect, free of original Sin (a concept that was not fully developed by the time of Irenaeus and Athanasius- that came a few centuries later with Augustine). Adam screwed up pretty quickly and brought Sin into the world. Jesus did it right and broke the power of Sin by paying the price that only one who was untainted by Sin could not pay.

McKnight concludes by saying that all the major atonement theory “clubs” can fit and coexist more or less comfortably in the Recapitulation “bag”. Ransom theory, satisfaction, substitution, representation, and penal substitution (McKnight’s list, not mine) all fit in quite nicely. As for Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, McKnight questions whether it can adequately function as a true atonement theory because it involves no actual transaction taking place.

OK, time for my take on this. I find McKnight’s conclusions lacking in several ways. Thus far he has claimed not to privilege one atonement theory over another and to put them all into dialogue. However, once McKnight sets the ground rules for what the dialogue will be, the rules are such that certain atonement theories, namely penal substitution, are greatly privileged over others. In fact, other atonement theories seem to be included in the bag insofar as they fit into the scheme where penal substitution serves as a “first among equals”. This is most evident when the question of Abelard is raised. McKnight judges Abelard’s theory to be functionally insufficient because it involves no actual transaction or “transmutation of righteousness” (as Luther’s concept of “Alien Righteousness” defines it). But we have to ask why any actual transaction must take place at all. This ground rule necessitating some kind of transaction assumes that there is something necessarily lacking about the human condition and that some kind of payment is necessary to rectify this lack. Hence penal substitution is privileged over all other theories.

McKnight is clearly showing himself as a Reformed theologian here because his theological anthropology is clearly rooted in the Augustinian concept of Original Sin, and carried forward in the concept of Total Depravity defined by the Synod of Dort (from whence we get the TULIP of Five Point Calvinism).

McKnight argument is legitimate insofar as one comes to the table with the same set of assumptions that he does. If one comes with a different theological anthropology, a different understanding of Sin, a different view of the nature/sovereignty of God, a different understanding of the Bible, etc., then one is not on equal footing because McKnight has defined the rules of the conversation.

The fact that McKnight sets the rules of the conversation is not problematic in and of itself. He wrote the book, after all, and any writer by definition sets the rules of the conversation in their work. The problem I see here is that these rules are largely implicit and undefined. McKnight never comes out and says, “I’m a Reformed theologian, so here’s what I assume about God, Jesus, Sin, the authority of Scripture, etc.” If those assumptions were laid out as clearly and succinctly as possible, then the playing field is leveled considerably because the reader has the chance to asses their own position and understand the similarities and differences they have with McKnight. As it is the assumptions are unstated, forcing the reader to figure them out as they go along, or simply accepting these unstated assumptions and ultimately agreeing with McKnight’s conclusions because the rules of the conversation allow no other outcome.

This leads to my larger complaint about most attempts at ecumenical dialogue. There is little to no discussion of our basic assumptions that we bring to the table, what theologians call prolegomena. I think we have to have a fairly strong sense of what our own assumptions are and be able to state them succinctly before we attempt any kind of theological dialogue. Otherwise we’ll each be playing our own individual theological language games and talking at one another instead of talking with one another.

I’ve leveled a pretty strong critique at McKnight in this section. Is my criticism fair? Does it go too far? Am I operating on some unquestioned assumptions that I haven’t adequately expressed?


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- part 3

In the first section of the book McKnight argued quite persuasively that to adequately speak about atonement a plurality of metaphors had to be used, since each of those metaphors points to a reality larger than what they actually encompass. In the next section McKnight continues this strand by pointing out a plurality of atoning moments in the life of Christ. But first McKnight engages in a brief excuses on the nature of metaphorical dialogue itself.

McKnight says that “metaphor” can be understood as “possibility”. The subject points to the possibility of a reality that is far beyond the thing itself. Metaphors help expand our imaginations to consider new realms of possibility that cannot be adequately captured by words alone. Seeing metaphor in terms of possibility helps us see the relation of the symbol and the thing itself in terms of indwelling: the eternal reality actually indwells the symbol that points to it. In this way McKnight demonstrates that the symbol, while not being the thing itself (that would be idolatry), nevertheless participates in the reality of that to which it points.

McKnight applies this concept to atonement theory by discussing the critiques of penal substitution, which is the favorite atonement theory of most evangelicals. Many feminist theologians have been critical of the penal substation theory because it idealizes victims (the “silent suffering” of Christ) and justifies oppression and discourage the oppressed from trying to better their situation. McKnight says that while such critiques are valid and point out the potential for abuse inherent in any metaphor, we should not throw the baby out with the bath-water. If we have a more nuanced view of penal substitution as a metaphor, instead of as an actual blood-contract between humanity and God, the potential for abuse is more adequately mitigated, and dialogue between the different metaphors can actually occur.

Further, McKnight argues that since our metaphors are so thoroughly conditioned by our context, and therefore limited in their universal applicability, we need to exercise great care in imposing our metaphors (and thus our contextual reality) upon others. A great degree of humility is required to realize that our metaphors cannot contain the ultimate reality of God’s salvation, and that Truth is not something we can ourselves posses. These things are God’s and God’s alone. This lack of humility is a major cause of the trouble in which the Western church finds itself after the collapse of Christendom.

McKnight begins his discussion of atoning moments at the most obvious place: the cross. The event of the crucifixion is the sole focus of most atonement theories, but McKnight raises the question: Crux Sola? Is atonement only to be found in the cross? Atonement is certainly found powerfully in the cross, perhaps most powerfully because of the striking nature of the image of crucifixion. He also mentions Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” in which Luther speaks movingly of the cross being the ultimate meeting of God and humanity because of the intensity of Christ’s suffering. Jesus was at his most human on the cross because here he experienced the fullness of our pain: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The power of this atoning moment, however, does not strip other moments in the life of Christ of their atoning power.

McKnight brings a bit of Eastern theology in by asserting that the Incarnation is an atoning moment as well. In the incarnation God shows how much he loves us by becoming one of us. God experiences all of the things that humans experience: joy, laughter, love, fear, temptation, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, loneliness, sadness, pain, and death. But Jesus is more than just your average human being. He is the perfect Eikon- fully embodying the image of God in humanity. Whereas we are cracked and broken Eikons, Jesus shows the fullness of human potential. It would not have been possible for God to have become human had humanity not already been created in the image of God. As much as we have done to fracture that original perfect relationship with God, it cannot be fully broken because we remain, at our core, God’s image bearers.

McKnight also sees Easter and Pentecost as atoning moments. Pentecost is important because the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles and the church was born, signifying the New Covenant in Christ. Although McKnight doesn’t say it explicitly, seeing Pentecost as an atoning moment enables us to see events in our own lives and the lives of our faith communities as atoning. The Holy Spirit still moves among us, reminding us of God’s continual call upon us.

I believe it is incredibly important to see Easter as an atoning moment. Just as Easter has no meaning without Good Friday, the crucifixion has no meaning without the Resurrection. When we focus solely on the suffering of Christ on Good Friday and pay only mere lip service to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday (Mel Gibson, I’m looking in your direction), then we imply that suffering itself is redemptive. Suffering is not redemptive in and of itself. The endurance of suffering is only possible because of the hope of the Resurrection. We endure the trials of life because we know that suffering will end, all tears will be dried, death will be no more, and all wrongs will be righted. Just as death is not the end of existence, the cross is not the endpoint of our faith. The cross points to the Resurrection and gives us hope for the future.

Reflections: If McKnight’s basis thesis is true and our communities truly can live out atonement and actualize the Kingdom of God in the world, then we have to be willing to see atoning moments throughout our communal lives. To begin to see the different ways our experiences can be atoning, a good place to start is to see how different moments in the life of Christ are atoning. McKnight is making a solid case here, and I’m anxious to see how he carries it forward into modern ecclesial contexts.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- Part 2

Hey everyone. Sorry I haven't posted in so long. It turns out this "Full Time Senior Pastor" thing cuts into blogging time. Who knew?

Picking up where we left off last time, McKnight begins Part 1 of the book by asserting again that when he uses the word atonement he is talking about far more than soteriology (how salvation works), but instead about our understanding of the Kingdom of God itself. That is, McKnight is talking about how we understand the Christian faith itself.

Since atonement theories point to a larger reality than that which they can encompass, therefore being ultimately inadequate to provide a full understanding of the subject in and of themselves, we have to use a plurality of metaphors when talking about atonement. If I may overlay Paul Tillich on McKnight’s text for a moment (something which I think McKnight would not mind terribly), a metaphor is another way of saying “symbolic language”. A symbol participates in the reality of that to which it points, but is not the thing itself. So if we were to absolutize only one atonement theory/metaphor/symbol we would be absolutizing something that is far less than absolute reality, i.e. God. The Bible calls this idolatry, which is a pretty major sin, so McKnight is right on in his insistence on using a plurality of metaphors to talk about atonement.

While McKnight’s list of starting points for talking about atonement is certainly not the end-all be-all list of possibilities (and I don’t see him implying that it is), his list is fairly comprehensive and each item merits some discussion.

Jesus: This may seem like a giant no-brainer, but most discussion of atonement begins with a definition of Sin, only then proceeding to Jesus. McKnight contends that Christian theology must begin with Christ. I tend to see theology as a circular undertaking, where our stance on every issue affects every other issue; hence there is no single starting point. Still, starting with Jesus is probably as good a place as any. McKnight takes Luke’s Jesus (let’s be clear- each gospel writer has his own distinct Jesus) and highlights the constant theme of reversal in Luke’s gospel: the last will be first, etc. This theme of reversal continues through Acts, of course, with the Gentiles inheriting the Kingdom that was supposed to be just for Israel. In a world where the divide between haves and have-nots is greater than ever, Luke’s Jesus has a special significance if we’re trying to articulate a relevant Christianity to that world.

God, Eikons, and Sin: For McKnight, these three things are the chronological beginning of the narrative. Theologians call this theological anthropology: how we understand humanity in relationship to God. Long story short, the loving God created us in God’s image (Eikons) and we quickly brought Sin into the picture and screwed up the imago Dei (Latin for the image of God). McKnight understands Sin as “hyper-relational”: breaking many strands in the complex web of relationships between God, the creation, individuals, families, communities, etc. It is this brokenness, estrangement, marred image, and separation that creates the basic problem that Jesus came to deal with. In Jesus, all of this brokenness is made “at one” again: atonement.

Eternity, Ecclesial Community, and Praxis: If Sin is hyper-relational, dealing with a complex web of relationships, than the cure is going to be complex and intertwined as well. It’s so complex as to literally have no beginning or end: hence the term eternity. McKnight employs the image of Ecclesial Community for much the same reason. Atonement is not simply the reconciliation of individual souls to God. It is also the reconciliation of our communal lives to God (Social Gospel, anyone?), and of ourselves to one another. How does this all work? That is the realm of Praxis: the intersection of theory (theology) and practice. Living out these nice, clean abstractions in the messy realities of everyday life is the tough part, and it’s a never-ending (eternal) conversation as to how this whole Christianity thing actually works.

Reflections: I like the ground McKnight has covered thus far. He genuinely seems committed to ecumenical dialogue without letting one particular voice dominate the conversation. I am trying to figure out what particular theological tradition McKnight hails from. My hunch is some branch of the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, but I’m not sure yet. Anybody have any thoughts or insights on this question or anything else I’ve brought up here?