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?


1 comment:

dp said...

matt - i don't have an email address for you but have a question - can you touch base with me? davepalmerinc at gmail dot com