This is not entirely a book review, however the words and thoughts that follow have all been influenced by Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement.
Atonement is a relative word it would seem. To many it is isolated to substitution, as Jesus being the substitution for us on the cross, while for others its justification. I know before reading McKnight’s book I really did not have a grasp on this theological concept, atonement was just one of those nice fluffy words that I knew and meant that I was redeemed for. However for McKnight and really the Bible it means a whole lot more. McKnight uses an analogy over and over again, that of a golf bag. He says some people when they refer to atonement only use one club out of their bag, as if that gets the job done. But obviously in his golf metaphor one club is not suffice. In fact, being a golfer, I know that every club is designed a certain way to help you become the most proficient and accurate that one can be on the golf course (though the one using the club, might need some real practice before he can utilize this). This is the same for atonement theology, there are many aspects that are related and interrelated when it comes to atonement. And to understand it completely and see its work in progress, one must reach out not just to one club, but to every one, to properly unravel and utilize once again what atonement really is.
Atonement begins with God…God is in community with himself, he is in three parts, or the trinity as we call it, and one part of him is not independent of the rest. In fact each facet of his being is dependent of one another, as well as independent of one another. This communal aspect of God is known as the perichoresis, and it flows through his tripartite nature to us. God desires to have community with us, this relational aspect of God is where atonement finds its beginning, where God wants to incorporate us as part of his family.
Adam, being the first human who sinned imputes on us a sinful nature, and this broken state that we find ourselves in, is exactly what atonement restores. We are cracked Eikons, and we need desperately to be restored to our original Eichonic state, that is before sin. In order for this change to take place, sin has to be dealt with. Just as the paschal lamb represented peoples sin in the Old Testament, Christ as the paschal lamb represents our sin on the Cross. But I am getting ahead of myself. Lets take a few steps back…
Atonement as many have often heard is a restoration, a redemption, a clean slate, it however reaches far beyond that. As I stated above, our broken state as Eikons broke our community with God, and as part of his family. And God longs to be in relationship with us, and sought to restore this fellowship. First of all atonement then is imputation, keeping in mind its purpose is to restore us or to incorporate us. And this restoration once again is to be brought into his family through the perichoretic part of the trinity. Imputation then or double imputation is Jesus taking on flesh (incarnation -kenosis), and eventually dying for our sins, so that we can be free of sins sting and power over our lives. Simply said Jesus becomes what we are, so that we can become what he is. This is the double imputation, Jesus becomes our substitutionary atonement, as the paschal lamb reflecting upon Yom Kippur or azazel, and therefore justifies us and we become engrafted into his communal family. This brings us to the next part of the atonement.
Justification is often a word tossed around within the world of atonement, its often misunderstood and lots of new ideas about this have come to play with the New Perspective on Paul. However as NT Wright and others believe, justification is a judiciary term, where all the evidence is brought before a judge and your as guilty as can be, but the judge declares you as righteous. This is justification, without going into detail of the Reformation and those in the field of John Piper, its not something we did, but what Jesus did. As he took our place, we become in his place again, part of the double imputation, and are declared righteous or justified. However, this justification connected with the imputation does not stop there. This love that we have been shown should spur us on to become righteous, not to attain our salvation, but as Philippians talks about, to work it out with fear and trembling, as tsadiq’s by or through torah observance, which is now written on our hearts. This justification shows that our ransom has been paid ( which is another part of the atonement all together, but for time’s sake, this is all that is going to be said on that).
As Jesus becomes what we are, God’s wrath is paid for, and sins hold is broken, and deaths sting stolen, so that we can become what Jesus is and was. This brings us to another aspect of the atonement, that of representation. It is with great despair that this is not a major component of atonement theology, for most of the book of Hebrews highlights this. Jesus was our sacrificial lamb, our scapegoat, but he was also the great high priest, representing mankind, and bringing the scapegoat to God to pay for our sin. This representation is so vital to atonement theology, because it incorporates Jesus humanity. Not only does he represent us as a High Priest, but he experienced pain, death, sorrow, and everything as we do. This representation gives him the ability to sympathize with our weaknesses, as McKnight calls inclusive representation, as therefore appeals to God on our behalf, dying in our place (exclusive representation), to restore broken Eikons, by incorporating us into himself. This is representation.
Atonement is a wonderful theology, and cannot be reduced to such boxed theology, but these aspects of the atonement help highlight just how much God desires for us to be in community with one another…and this perichoresis within God and with us does not stop just in theory, but truly is a challenge for us to go out and do the same. Rob Bell, though I have my mixed feelings toward him, said it sort of like this: “because Jesus became the Eucharist for us, we must become the Eucharist for others (Jesus Wants to Save Christians-final chapter I Believe).” McKnight highlights the theosis, or the divinization, he does this with much care and concern though before I move on.
Theosis is the idea of us becoming divine by the transforming effect of grace, bringing us into the perichoretic community, and this should influence our desire to go and do the same. To be broken for others, to see them as God sees them. To look past their sin, to substitute ourselves for them, and bring them into the family. McKnight again is careful to highlight the fact that though we may go out, it is God that does the transforming work, not us. The atonement though invites us to join in the missio dei, through incorporating others to ourselves, and to be forerunners of social justice, social justice as scripture would show, not as our world dictates. Through prayer and mission, we can become in our praxis a community not only shaped by atonement through Christ, but shaped by showing atonement to others as little Christ’s partaking in the theosis and the perichoresis.