What Does the Bible Say About Atonement?: An Interview with Joshua M. McNall

Joshua M. McNallThe Bible presents the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ in several images. What if those separate images were fit together to comprise one grand impression of Christ’s saving work while also allowing each piece to retain its recognizable particularity?

Bible Gateway interviewed Joshua M. McNall about his book, The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan, 2019).

What is the theological meaning of the word atonement?

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Joshua M. McNall “Atonement” is one of the few words in our theological lexicon that actually originates from English. It speaks to the “at-one-ment” (reconciliation) made possible between God and humans because of Jesus’s work. In the words of Scripture, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19 NIV; italics added).

Why is it important that Christians (if not able to fully understand, at least) consider the work of Christ’s atonement?

Joshua M. McNall There will always be a level of mystery surrounding salvation. For that reason, Paul speaks of being “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1 ESV). But the inability to understand atonement fully should not be an excuse for ignoring important questions that surround it. If a doctrine seems absurd or self-contradictory, then our faith is called into question.

The aim of theologians like myself is not to expel the mystery but to steward it well, and to pay attention to the understanding of the atonement that we can have through Scripture and tradition.

Briefly explain why there are differences in interpretation on the way the Bible addresses Christ’s atonement.

Joshua M. McNall One reason there are differences is that Scripture itself uses different metaphors and images to help us grasp Christ’s work. My claim, however, is that these different biblical “images” of atonement are not contradictory: they fit together in particular ways—like the pieces in a grand mosaic.

In a nutshell, what are those differences?

Joshua M. McNall In church history, Christians built upon Scripture to conceive of different “models” of atonement. Like a model of a toy airplane or a fire engine, these interpretations of the atonement are imperfect pointers to a reality that is much larger than the “thing” (salvation in Christ) that we can hold in our hands or in our minds.

These different models include:

  1. Recapitulation: The idea that Jesus acts for us as a kind of true or second “Adam.”
  2. Penal Substitution or Vicarious Judgment: The idea that Jesus takes upon himself the divinely sanctioned penalty for human sin.
  3. Triumph: The idea that Jesus conquers Satan and achieves a victory over the forces of evil. This is often called the Christus Victor view.
  4. Moral Influence: The idea that Jesus’s actions inspire us to follow his loving and holy example by the power of the Spirit.

Unfortunately, there is a problem in many treatments of atonement: these different models have often been pitted against each other in a kind of competitive hierarchy, or simply spread out on the table but without any connectedness between them (in a kind of disconnected plurality).

We badly need an integrated approach to Christ’s work. That’s where The Mosaic of Atonement comes in.

Why have you chosen the mosaic metaphor?

Joshua M. McNall A mosaic is a helpful metaphor because the individual “pieces” of the biblical picture of atonement (recapitulation, triumph, etc.) are meant to come together for a bigger purpose. They’re intended to point us to God in Christ, through the power of the Spirit.

The mosaic metaphor also helps avoid the two extremes I mentioned earlier:

  1. defensive hierarchy (pitting one “piece” or model against another) and
  2. disconnected plurality (leaving the “pieces” or models unrelated to one another).

In a mosaic, one can see the individual pieces, but the ultimate purpose is for the parts to come together in the service of something bigger: the goal of worship (for example, Romans 12:1–2).

In laymen’s terms, how do you piece together in your book the various atonement perspectives to show that they mutually support one another?

Joshua M. McNall One of my favorite Bible passages involves Paul’s imagery of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12).

His claim is that one part of Jesus’s body (the church) cannot say to another “I have no need of you.” Each part is important, even while each part is connected in a particular way.

It’s the same with my “pieces” of atonement doctrine. The book is broken down into four body parts: the Feet, the Heart, the Head, the Hands.

  • The Feet: In my model, recapitulation represents the “feet” of Christ’s mosaic body, because the idea of Jesus as the true Adam provides a foundation for the other models.
  • The Heart: Penal substitution represents the “heart” within my metaphor, because Scripture portrays Christ’s sacrificial death as the center of the doctrine. It stands only because of the “feet” but it pumps lifeblood to the whole body.
  • The Head: At the apex (or “head”) of atonement imagery is the theme of divine triumph (Christus Victor). This is the result that is brought about by Christ’s penalty-bearing death.
  • The Hands: Finally, the outstretched “hands” of Christ’s mosaic body (both beckoning and restraining us) symbolize the theme of moral influence. These speak to the way Christians are called to be agents of reconciliation ourselves (back to 2 Corinthians 5:19 where I began) as we’re transformed by the power of the Spirit.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Joshua M. McNall I use Bible Gateway almost every day, for sermons, classes, and research. Thanks for all you do!

The Mosaic of Atonement is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Joshua McNall (PhD, University of Manchester) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He’s the author of The Mosaic of Atonement, A Free Corrector: Colin Gunton and the Legacy of Augustine (Fortress, 2015), and the popular-level Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018). He lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with his wife Brianna and their four children. He blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com.

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