I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about theology lately, exploring Anabaptist ideas amid Emerging church controversies. Much of the rageblogging done against people like McLaren and Tony Jones is filled with accusations about believing the “wrong” things about the atonement. So I’m glad that Josh Brown’s blog tipped me off last month to North Park professor Scot McKnight’s book in Abingdon’s series on emerging theology, A Community Called Atonement.

In evangelical churches for generations, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement has held a privileged position over other possible interpretations about why Jesus “had to die.” Not that I was ever told about it growing up evangelical, but there are a number of other, quite different, explanations of what could possibly explain Jesus’ execution (theologically speaking).

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An easy spot for traditional church folk to pick at Emergents’ claims of “orthodoxy” (more on this weaponized word in a future post for sure) is to press the issue of penal substitutionary atonement – which Emergents are not particularly fond of (Lord knows, I’m not!). See Tony Jones’s recounting of his lunch with John Piper to get a sense of the conflict.

So I’ve been trying to learn something about Anabaptist theology’s work on the atonement. I’m happy to discover once again that there’s probably a reason why an emerging church-flavored person like me is so comfortable with the Mennos. They have a broader theological view of atonement, and don’t seem to equate penal substitution with the gospel.

It seems like the theological work being done these days is in two broad areas:

  1. identifying the theological history of Anabaptism,
  2. and some robust new thinking and interpretation by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.

The History

It’s not easy to get a clear picture of Mennonite theological history, for many reasons outlined in this helpful Frances F. Hiebert article from Direction journal. From my reading of Hiebert’s historical survey, I think emerging Christians would be right at home with Anabaptist thought on this subject. While most Mennonites (but by no means all) recognized some truth to penal substitution, this was by no means the whole story for them. Early Anabaptists understood this “forensic” model as only one facet of a complex and mysterious culmination of God-human relations. From Hiebert’s article [emphasis is mine]:

But to them, that model was inadequate or insufficient. It concentrated chiefly on Christ’s death and had been reduced to a passive or forensic doctrine which concerned only a change in humanity’s legal status before God….To the Anabaptists, however, atonement meant much, much more. According to Pilgram Marpeck it was far more than a legal transaction in the heavenly court. It … referred to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through the work of Jesus Christ. It points not only to Christ’s death, but to all the various phases of his activity on behalf of humanity including his ministry, his death, and his resurrection…. This comprehensive view of atonement is in contrast to both Catholic and Protestant traditions that have held a forensic doctrine of atonement in which “all that is really necessary for the salvation of humankind is a qualified (pure) victim.”

The New Thinking

Some of the contemporary work on this subject I’ve read is from J. Denny Weaver, a professor from Mennonite school Bluffton College, in Ohio. This article outlines a modification he’s made to another historical atonement theory called “Christus victor.” Weaver’s so-called “narrative Christus victor” theology removes the contradictory blood-thirst from God’s role in Christ’s death, and sets the entire enterprise in an against-the-empire context that I hear leaders in the emerging church speak about often.

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