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.


Buzz Trexler said...

I haven't read McKnight's book, but was captured by your comparisons of 'missional' and 'attractional' theologies. My community is a small church that seems to be more missional than attractional, yet not by design. With 25-30 active worshippers, it is not a program church; however, it responds well to the needs of the least, the last and the lost. Am I off-base in sometimes thinking that Western culture has little regard for churches that are not part of consumer Christianity? Or, have I completely misread your post?
Grace and peace ...

Tim Catchim said...

Hey Matt, Tim here from Clarksville I still got your book on early church history and doctrine)I am about to read this book by McKnight actually. I read Green and Bakers book Recovering the Scandall of the cross about a year ago and it ws awesome! Want to get together some time soon so I can give you your book back? Oh yeah, you can catch me up on the building project as well.