Tony Jones, A Better Atonement, and the Future of Emergent Church Theology

Over the past five years or so there seems to have been a climax and subsequent decline in optimism and enthusiasm surrounding the Emergent Church conversation.  Of course those on the conservative evangelical side have always dismissed the movement as heterodox and a return to theological liberalism, but even some of the more sympathetic critics that often describe themselves as “missional” have expressed concern about a lack of theological leadership.  There’s been no shortage of deconstruction and even ecclesial innovation amid this group, but the common question remains: what is it exactly that so-called emergents believe?

One way to answer this question has been to point to someone like Peter Rollins, for example, who argues very persuasively that we have to get beyond belief.  I think many would concede this, myself included, and the adage of “belong, behave, believe” (as opposed to the traditionally reversed order) has since been well-received.  Nonetheless, I think we’ve also learned that it’s helpful and maybe even essential to know what beliefs we’re trying to get beyond in the first place.  Even Brian McLaren, whose significance and example for me and many others I’m sure can hardly be over-stated, has been decidedly hesitant to spend much time putting forth specific formulations of systematic theology.  Indeed, the trend, and rightly so, has been to uphold narrative before proposition, and transformation before information.  But my contention is that the signifance of what we believe is no less urgent now than ever before – especially when it comes to being organized as a movement (just look at the successes and failures of OWS!) – even if the issue of how we believe continues to take center stage, as I agree it should.

I’d like to think that I’m a pretty strong believer in the centrality of Christian praxis; BUT, emphasizing orthopraxis to the detriment of orthodoxy – at least to the extent that ecclesiological unity is concerned – may be running out of steam.  Are the two not mutually interdependent?  This is why I’ve been especially appreciative of figures like Rachel Held Evans, David Fitch and Roger Olson, for instance (check out Olson’s most recent posts in response to a TGC publication on “the gospel”).  In his own more scientifically sensitive way, Philip Clayton has similarly pioneered a way forward for those of us who are not quite ready to be done with the creeds.  Then there’s the oft-cited work of N.T. Wright of course.  Many others could be mentioned, and it is good to remember the limited cultural and ethnic context of this little North American middle-class discussion.  Nonetheless, I think we disaffected, homeless, progressive but not quite post-Christian folks in this region of the world might still have an important role to play in the global future of our faith.

With this in mind, the voice I’m recognizing here is that of Tony Jones and his very short new book, A Better Atonement. I wouldn’t say that Jones is trying to be particularly original with this work.  And if you’re looking for the next cutting edge theory or criticism of Christian atonement, this is not it.  If that’s what you want, check out Kathryn Tanner, Delores Williams, Mark Heim, Andrew Sung Park, etc.  No, Tony’s book is far simpler and more useful than that.

No doubt I’m probably in danger of painting with too broad of strokes here, but…

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 among 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 emphasizes “rejecting apathy,” so long as PSA is depicted as the full picture or main event of the good news, the church will fall well 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, will take more than just ignoring or only deconstructing Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral (conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism and evangelism).

Because even if you’re convinced PSA is the devil, the language is in the Bible even when re-interpreted, so it’s probably not going away.  Tony Jones knows this, and he also knows better than to 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.  Unless “emergent” is to become forever irrelevant even to the most open-minded evangelicals, this is the path that should be taken.  I’m very appreciative of the various feminist criticisms of traditional atonement readings, but if you want to engage the other side of the debate, you can’t just throw out PSA.  It has to be dealt with even if you revise it.  If this is too conservative for you, sorry! 🙂  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 can emergents be generous enough to “go to the middle” for evangelicals so to speak.

I feel like 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.)  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, values, programs, etc.  But the two biggest factors, 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, the church might as well become an arts interest group or a social service club.

  1. 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.
  2. Secondly, 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 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 better!  The response: offer an alternative that isn’t reactionary.
  3. 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.  Scholars like Theodore Jennings, Miroslav Volf, and Joel Green have made cases along the same lines.  People who like the Girardian “Last Scapegoat” take will obviously appreciate Mark Heim or someone like Ingolf Dalferth.  And this is one of the positions that Jones defends.  More emphatically though, Jones follow’s Moltmann’s notion of atonement as solidarity through the Philippians 2 hymn and The Crucified God.  Now to be fair, the best proponents of penal substitution (e.g., von Balthasar) can also say this, 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 our 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 Kingdom 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.  This is what we have to claim (for a better Scriptural understanding of what this looks like, I recommend N.T. Wright’s most recent book, How God Became King).

The book reads like a blog – very informal, but still clear and free from overly 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 of conservative evangelicalism.    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 sum, Jones lays out what in my view is the most compelling theory of atonement for our situation in light of the overwhelming crises we face as a North American church in the midst of what Walter Brueggemann has perceptively called a culture of therapeutic, technological consumer militarism.

A shorter and slightly different version of this post can be found at

8 thoughts on “Tony Jones, A Better Atonement, and the Future of Emergent Church Theology

  1. Pingback: Tony Jones, A Better Atonement, and the Future of Emergent Church Theology

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  4. Brian

    “Because even if you’re convinced PSA is the devil, the language is in the Bible even when re-interpreted, so it’s probably not going away.” Odd, but I do believe those “fringe” scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan would disagree.

  5. Bill Walker Post author

    That’s a good point, Brian. Yes, you can make a defensible case for the absence of PSA, but it seems like this approach most often proves to be polemical and alienating for evangelicals. By the way, the best argument I’ve heard against PSA is actually in Stephen Finlan’s book, Problems with Atonement. I’m trying to be more pragmatic and compromising with this statement than anything else. Moreover, I’d say it’s not just coincidental that Borg and Crossan are also some of the most well-known for denying a physical resurrection – unlike Jones and others I mention above. While I’m glad to learn from them, most evangelicals aren’t going to listen, and I don’t necessarily blame them for this.

  6. Brian

    I certainly appreciate your desire to speak in a way that evangelicals will hear, especially if you are invested in that community, in my slightly more advanced years I discovered that, at least for me, trying to use “their” language generally doesn’t work. But I do wish you the best in that noble goal.

    And yes, I do agree with Borg/Crossan on the resurrection and do blame them for not listening. When any of us cease to listen because of differences in opinion, language, or heart felt belief, “resurrection” ceases to be a reality.

  7. Bill Walker Post author

    I’m not interested in trying to defend the resurrection historically, but I do want to give plenty of room for its historical affirmation. Much of the time, those who don’t allow for this are choosing modern acquiescence over eschatological hope, which I think is a bad move.

    As for “using their language,” I actually prefer to say representation, not substitution, and I look to passages like Hebrews 2 for this.

    With regard to “listening” or not, I don’t mean to suggest we shouldn’t listen to dissenting voices. Nor should we get defensive or mad at them. At a certain point though, we’re up to different things. If this overly historical-critical project has brought any edification to the church, it seems to have lost its momentum and may very well be dragging the mainline down with it.

    I believe we need something more future-oriented, which is why Tony thinks Moltmann is a great example to follow, and I agree.

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