A few years ago, my friend Brian McLaren coined a phrase: Generous Orthodoxy. I guess for some, this simply meant ‘fudge’ or ‘compromise’ or the polar opposite of ‘orthodoxy’ – heresy. But that’s not what Brian meant. Generous orthodoxy is the uncompromising pursuit of Jesus – faith seeking understanding – by the Christian community. A search for truth that doesn’t simply affirm our entrenched positions, but one that is open, an intentional knowing of Jesus that ensures that we, and the world we live in is changed for the better. Generous orthodoxy can sound like the easy option – be open to all so you don’t have to make any boundary-setting doctrinal or theological decisions. Actually, it’s a hard path to walk. It’s the desire to value and recognise orthodoxy within the breadth of Christian tradition. It’s a vision few have done justice to- something that can’t be said of Scot McKnight.
A Community Called Atonement is generous orthodoxy. It’s profoundly Christocentric, yet it is neither theologically narrow nor doctrinally blinkered. Indeed, for a comparatively small book, it covers a lot of ground, and it aspires to, and achieves far more, than books two or three times its size.
At its heart is an idea that can be summed up thus: ‘atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life. Any theory of atonement that is not an ecclesial theory of atonement is inadequate.’ In order to sustain this view, McKnight has drawn from deep biblical, theological and historical wells across the breadth of the Christian Church.
‘Atonement’, according to McKnight, ‘is about creating communities of faith wherein God’s will is done and lived out.’ Or put another way, it’s not just about what’s done to us, but something that we play a role in bringing about. It’s not simply about orthodoxy (believing the right things) but it’s very much about orthopraxis (doing the right things in light of our beliefs). And to achieve both orthodoxy and orthopraxis, it is vital that we recognise the breadth of atonement metaphors and language as played out both biblically and historically/theologically. To prefer one view of the atonement, at the expense of all the others, is neither generous nor orthodox. It is, as McKinght suggests, rather like trying to play golf with only one club in your bag. It’s possible to get round a golf course in this way, but it’s not only awkward, it’s pointless. It’s the work of Christ that is ‘once and for all’, not a specific theory! There is an array of atonement metaphors for good reason: ‘Language is separate from the work of God even if it expresses that work of God truly. For the apostles [and for us] no language enters the realm of finality. The language games about atonement, from Jesus until today, anchor themselves more or less in the story of the Bible, but no one atonement story can ever achieve utter perfection. Every rhetoric of atonement is limited, and each one describes truths of the atonement, but no one rhetoric describes them all.’ This is something many (myself included) need to hear.
The beauty and strength of Scot’s book isn’t the insights it gives about any given metaphor or theory of atonement – though it is informative in this regard – but rather, it’s the way it weaves these into a whole so that it can be seen that, ‘God provides atonement in order to create a fellowship of persons who love God and love others, who find healing for the self and who care about the world.’
There has been a rash of books about the atonement of late, many of which I would recommend for all kinds of reasons. But what Scot does, that so many fail to do, is demonstrate how to ‘do theology’ in a way that is generous and orthodox, and how to conduct theological discussion about the atonement in a way that is reflective of its purpose – to build a Christocentic fellowship of believers, rather than establish irreconcilable differences.