There’s been a heavy slew of blog posts and books lately on why young adults are leaving the church (see Frank Schaeffer, Christian Piatt, Dianna Butler Bass, etc.).  And Bass is awesome in her interview by the way!  This is a good conversation to have, and I think the practical issues definitely need to be addressed.  We should talk about aesthetics, music, liturgy, ethics, programs, etc.  But two of the biggest factors at hand, I would want to say, are still identity and purpose; and surely we get these from our theology, and perhaps more precisely, our christology.  Without this, it’s hard for me to see how the church won’t just eventually morph into something else.

As has frequently been noted, a major problem in many evangelical contexts continues to be the degree to which “the gospel” is equated with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA).  I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of the emergent church depends on its ability to articulately refute, and concisely recast, this reductive tendency amongst our more conservative friends.  No matter what kind of social justice projects (KONY 2012, etc.)  get tacked onto this message, and regardless of how much Relevant Magazine calls for “rejecting apathy,” so long as PSA is depicted as the full picture or main event of the good news, the church will always fall short of expressing Jesus’ vision for it.  (By the way, I’m talking to people who still care about preserving something like the Christian church that isn’t just Mainline version 2.0… if this isn’t you, that’s fine!).  An adequate response, however, might take more than just ignoring or only deconstructing the components of Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral (conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism and evangelism).

Because even if you’re convinced that PSA is the devil, and even if you revise it, the language is in the Bible, so it’s probably not going away.  Tony Jones knows this, and he also knows better than to flatly dismiss it.  Instead, as others have tried to do (e.g., Scot McKnight), he’s merely attempting to dethrone it, and I would like to join him.  I’m very appreciative of the various feminist criticisms of traditional atonement readings (especially that of Kathryn Tanner), but unless “emergent” is to become forever irrelevant even to the most open-minded evangelicals (does this matter?), then you can’t just throw out PSA.

At the same time, Tony is also careful to point out that, generally speaking, atonement theory (not christology) has never really been a dividing debate in church history and shouldn’t be now.  Compared to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, atonement is secondary.  I’m not as sure about this, but he could be right.  I’m simply saying that, just as mainliners might need to meet emergents halfway, so too maybe emergents can be generous enough to “go to the middle” for evangelicals so to speak.  Or at least for those of us who are recovering, as I’ve heard Tripp say, it’s a good idea to be gracious to every version of our old selves.

Here are some things from the book:

  • The first thing Jones does is to (convincingly, in my view, and biblically!) debunk original sin without neglecting the seriousness of sin as such.  Again, this is not new, but sin must be understood structurally and socially (war, violence, oppression, inequality, environmental degradation, etc) without forgetting about it individually.  This is crucial for an emergent church theological project.
  • Secondly, in a respectful and fair way, Jones directly challenges Driscoll and Piper on this issue for their hyper and irresponsible, Calvinist PSA.  I am so glad he’s not ignoring them.  They are way too powerful and influential to ignore if we care about the North American church.  And they are way too wrong for us to be silent about it.  And here’s what we have to see: a lot of people who go to their churches aren’t even like them, because they don’t know any better!  The response: offer an alternative that isn’t reactionary and that doesn’t poison its own roots.
  • Thirdly, after outlining the major theories of atonement throughout history and testifying to both their necessity and finitude, Jones turns to a better theory for our time, despite its shared limitation (see below).

Anyone who has studied 20th century theology already knows what Jones is saying here.  Jon Sobrino and the liberation theologians said it.  Jurgen Moltmann and other political theologians have said it.  Andrew Sung Park has been on the podcast and is certainly influenced by Sobrino and Moltmann.  Scholars like Theodore Jennings, Miroslav Volf, and Joel Green have made cases along the same lines as Tony.  People who like the Girardian “Last Scapegoat” take will obviously appreciate Mark Heim or someone like Ingolf Dalferth.  This is one of the positions that Jones defends.  Most emphatically though, Jones follows Moltmann’s notion of atonement as solidarity through the Philippians 2 hymn and The Crucified God.  To be fair, the best proponents of PSA (e.g., von Balthasar) can say this too, but think substitution without the penal, or what Volf calls inclusive substitution, in which Christ is not a third party inserted between God and humanity, but the very God who was wronged:

“Jesus’s life, and particularly his death, show God’s ultimate solidarity with the marginalized and the poor,” Jones explains, “with those who most acutely experience godforsakenness . . . in his death, we are united with his suffering.  And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.”

My interpretation of A Better Atonement goes something like this: The real hole in the gospel for conservatives is the failure to proclaim the saving significance that Jesus and therefore God participates fully in and understands human suffering, while for liberals it is that Jesus does this as Christ.  This means three things: we affirm incarnation, we affirm resurrection, and we declare the prophetic meaning of the crucifixion loud and clear.  Yes, we’ve read and written about this, and it might even be old news for some, but surprisingly enough, most people sitting in the pew as it were still haven’t really heard it preached or seen it in action, either because we’re too distracted as ministers with preaching salvation as a legal transaction on the one hand or using it as mere exemplary inspiration on the other.  The justice of God gets sidelined in both cases, as the parables about the reign of God are either overly eschatologized or mystically internalized.  The cross and the kingdom must be reconnected, and it can’t just be social.  It has to be soteriological.  This is what Jones is saying, I think.  Is this what emergents can and should claim? (for a better Scriptural understanding of how one could do this, I recommend N.T. Wright’s most recent book, How God Became King).

The book reads like a blog – very informal and straightforward, but still free from simplistic caricatures, which is a difficult balance to find.  This is reliable, timely, and bold theological leadership for the emergent church that is desperately needed.  I must confess that I wish it had come sooner, as I feel too many people have already moved away from the conversation before listening to what might be a tenable alternative to the monolithic PSA gospel.    Nonetheless, this should be a welcomed and appreciated little book for easy reference and for prompting discussion in an intelligent and accessible fashion.  What could be more appropriate as we approach Easter?  In my view, Jones highlights a most compelling theory of atonement for our situation, especially in light of the crises we face as a North American church that comes in the midst of what Walter Brueggemann has perceptively called a culture of therapeutic, technological consumer militarism.  I’m looking forward to the interview!

Other things I’m wondering:

  1. Does talking about emergent “theology” even make sense?
  2. I’m not saying that we have to have one “right” theology (or does it sound like I am? if so, call me out!), but can this kind of atonement be unifying for the mainline-evangelical divide?
  3. Maybe it’s a worn out question, but is the word “emergent” still useful? (i.e., is it too insular, sub-cultured, taboo for evangelicals, etc.)
  4. Finally, for those who will have listened to the Bass interview, I’m curious if anyone notices a relationship or contrast between what she’s talking about and what Tony is doing here…

(I wrote a more extended introduction to this topic that can be seen here).