Thinking Out Loud

February 23, 2017

Signs of Evangelicalism’s Demise

Yesterday we mentioned an article posted by Scot McKnight at the Patheos blog Jesus Creed titled The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?

scot-mcknightHe begins,

Not long ago I posted on the loss of the evangelical soul, a post in part stimulated by the tone of conversations I am witnessing on FB. Everybody’s a prophet these days and thinks so because, so they think, they are speaking truth to power. They’re not. They’re yelling in a barrel full of self-appointed prophets

Today’s post moves into signs of evangelicalism’s demise. Let’s get the standard definition of evangelicalism on the table first: an evangelical is committed to these four elements: the Bible, the cross as the place of atonement, the necessity of personal conversion, and an active Christian life both in missions/evangelism as well as justice, peace and reconciliation….

…Those four elements are crumbling, folks, they are crumbling. It’s not that evangelicalism has been yet again swamped by politics and lost its way. Rather, it is swamped by politics because those four elements are crumbling. Bible and theology are of little interest other than an odd Bible citation to prop up a claim. Small groups read books by well-known authors, rarely are they studies on a single book of the Bible (publishers aren’t selling these as well today), far too many of its most prominent theologians write books unanchored in Scripture and they do not begin with sketches of the Bible.

He then breaks down his areas of concern with the following headers:

  1. The Bible Diminished
  2. Mission Work Has Become Social Work
  3. Where Are The Pastors?
  4. Atonement Confusion
  5. Embracing Our Flaws
  6. Pride in Politics Rather Than Piety

Again, you need to click through to read the article, it’s not lengthy and I encourage you to do so.

The section headed Atonement Confusion caught my interest:

Atonement theology has fallen on hard times. It has become politicized into penal substitution, which for some means propitiation, vs. some other center of gravity — and more and more it has moved toward Girardian scapegoat theory, exemplary theology, or a very soft Christus victor. Hard headed conservatives are protecting propitiation at all costs and neglecting kingdom themes in the process and so distort atonement while committed progressivists are determined to prevent the wrath of God against sin and sinners (mentioning Jonathan Edwards does the trick) so they can find some “theory” of atonement that turns the Holy Week into justice and more justice. Evangelicalism from beginning to end is a cross-shaped atonement-based gospel and there is little appeal for a new book like John R.W. Stott’s The Cross of Christ except with the propitiation crowd, who are in an echo chamber of Stott. I have attempted to sketch a comprehensive theory of atonement in A Community called Atonement.

I asked Dr. McKnight if he would break this down a little bit for the lay-reader; the average parishioner like me who might find this paragraph a little above their pay grade. He graciously replied with this brief synopsis:

1. Evangelicals are shifting toward a variety of approaches to atonement. Some think it’s about the wrath of God, some think it’s about Jesus as enduring injustice, others think it’s about Jesus showing us how to fight for justice, some think Jesus got trapped in a culture-religious war, etc.

2. People think anything having to do with punishment makes God unworthy of worship and an angry, embattled God who seeks vengeance. So, they want a God of love theory.

3. Jesus did with us, instead of us, and for our redemption. (And he was raised, too!)

For more of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom view, check out his other books, including the one we reviewed here, The King Jesus Gospel.

…After considering that, I decided to go back into McKnight’s original paragraph and look at some of the elements contained there. First, scapegoat theory. This is from René Girard’s Mimetic Theory of the Scapegoat.

René Girard’s Mimetic Theory is based on the principle that human beings are mimetic creatures.  We imitate what we see in others. In fact, our desires are not actually our own, but desires we have copied from others.  The more we imitate each other, the more alike we become.  Increasingly, we vie for the same desires and we become rivals. The more human beings imitate each other, the more individuals become alike.  Distinctions between individuals are blurred as they mirror each other.  The boundaries between individuals which keep order, begin to disintegrate. Increased rivalry creates increased violence and the blurred boundaries threaten to destabilize the social fabric.

In Girard’s theory, primitive man stumbled upon the solution to this threat: the scapegoat.  By placing the blame for all the hatred and distress on one individual or group of individuals, the community’s violence becomes polarized toward the ones being blamed.  These responsible individuals become the scapegoats for all the bad feeling in the community. By expelling or killing the scapegoat, order is restored and the community becomes peaceful again. The single act of sanctioned violence, becomes like a vaccination against the disease of chaotic, out of control violence.

It is critical that the members of the community be completely convinced that the scapegoat is guilty for this mechanism to restore order.  That is why the scapegoat must be accused and slandered before he is killed, but after the killing, everyone attributes the restored order to the scapegoat’s sacrifice.  In this way, the sacrificial victim becomes responsible for both the violence and the peace in the community.  He becomes “the sacred”…

Exemplary Theology proved a little more slippery in terms of finding a concise definition. (If you can direct me to one, we’ll insert it here.)

Wikipedia has a definition of Christus victor:

According to the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement, Christ’s death defeated the powers of evil, which had held humankind in their dominion. It is a model of the atonement that is dated to the Church Fathers, and it, or the related ransom theory, was the dominant theory of the Atonement for a thousand years, until Anselm of Canterbury supplanted it in the West with his Satisfaction theory of atonement.

Their article also contains three atonement theory models:

In his [1931] book, [Gustaf] Aulén identifies three main types of Atonement Theories:

  • The earliest was what Aulén called the “classic” view of the Atonement, more commonly known as the Ransom Theory, or since Aulén’s work, it is known sometimes as the “Christus Victor” theory: this is the theory that Adam and Eve made humanity subject to the Devil during the Fall, and that God, in order to redeem humanity, sent Christ as a “ransom” or “bait” so that the Devil, not knowing Christ couldn’t die permanently, would kill him, and thus lose all right to humanity following the Resurrection.
  • A second theory is the “Latin” or “objective” view, more commonly known as Satisfaction Theory, beginning with Anselmian Satisfaction (that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind, satisfying the demands of God’s honor) and later developed by Protestants as penal substitution (that Christ is punished instead of humanity, thus satisfying the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive). Some have argued that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was expressed by the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr c.100-165, Eusebius of Caesarea c.275-339, and Augustine of Hippo 354-430.
  • A third is the “subjective” theory, commonly known as the Moral Influence view, that Christ’s passion was an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it.

There is also a link there to this article by Greg Boyd.






  1. Atonement is a hot topic lately. I got caught up on Girard over the summer and just finished NT Wrights new book on the subject – which I would try to summarize but it is way above my pay grade

    Comment by Jeff — February 23, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    • I’m aware of the trendiness of this in current discussions. If you find something that really breaks it down for the lay-person, I’d like to see it or run it here.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 23, 2017 @ 11:21 am

  2. the best and most exhaustive book i’ve read on atonement is hastings rashdall’s “the idea of atonement in christianity”. it covers each idea in depth and also covers the developmental backdrop which have rise to each. for those who feel proof texting matters, the relevant passages for each idea are given as well.

    exemplar, or moral influence theory, proper, is from abelard and in general, is the idea that through jesus, we get a glimpse into full humanity that we are and can move into, and a reflection in christ, the fullness of divinity. it is through the “exemplar” life of christ that we are now aware of both and can, because of that awareness, know what it is we should and do desire and what we must do in order to obtain.

    various emphasis is put on different aspects of that theory, but opponents tend to purposefully take a caricature; that, “whoopdy-doo, isn’t that jesus neat”; or, the idea that it reduces jesus to having a fan club who want to “be like mike” as it were, and just as superficially.

    rashdall holds abelard’s position in the end, but speaks of it much like schillebeeckx or rohr do in modern times and more traditionally aligned with the jewish idea of “participatory pedagogy”.

    anyway, hope that helps.

    Comment by Steven Hoyt — February 23, 2017 @ 11:39 am

    • Thanks Steven, that’s helpful. I wasn’t totally lost in the weeds, the term itself is indicative, and one Google Books result pointed readers to the “Gallery of Faith” in Hebrews 11 as a model. I think this can only go so far however; we certainly can (and should) follow Christ’s example but we can’t accomplish our own atonement (if it’s atonement we’re addressing specifically.)

      Now I have to consider “Participatory Pedagogy.” This is complicated, for sure.

      By the way, I just put a Shift Key in the mail for you. It should arrive any day now.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 23, 2017 @ 11:54 am

      • LOL (oh look! it just arrived!)

        exemplar theory has little to do with following jesus’ example. the philosophy of paul is stoicism, and paul sells jesus as the ultimate stoic, but it’s the difference between the stoic and jesus that paul draws out. same with johannine literature to an extent.

        it’s “what is jesus up to”, “what is he thinking”, and what all that that reveals and implies in a very real way, that is what exemplar theory aims to say, not just that we “be like mike”.

        notice though, you have a mooring already in your thinking about atonement.

        given my theology of atonement, it is *completely* a matter of us and our effort to be atoned, because it isn’t an event but an experience.

        you presume propitiation of some sort, and that’s really unnecessary despite however traditional it may be in some christian communities.

        propitiation and expiation are two different things, and if god’s good news is judgment according to how that related to the jewish mind in captivity in egypt, it is god coming to make things right, as they were meant to be.

        unless you demand punishment is a part of that arrival (which isn’t at all necessary to “making things right”), then it is empty air thinking someone or something else is needed to accomplish atonement other than “grace” through “faith”, exactly i just defined those terms, and in their proper, correct, and traditional meanings.

        with me?

        sorry that i don’t give a shift. =)

        Comment by Steven Hoyt — February 23, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

  3. *a* presentation of exemplar theory in theological terms is this one, which is my own, kept simple:

    god is goodness. we are icons of god. god’s active presence in the world, we name grace. being icons, we are drawn to the good, which again, is god. this draw is called faith, pistis in greek. participating in the good is called righteousness. the experience of that participation, we name atonement. the transforming effects of that experience is called salvation. the process of transformation is called sanctification. the purpose of it all is called theosis, becoming the full image of god through realizing the fullness of our humanity.

    that’s maybe just me, but i find the idea replete in the fransiscan tradition and in more poetic terms:

    In our times, an authentic faith in God only seems to be possible in the context of a praxis of liberation and of solidarity with the needy. It is in that praxis that the idea develops that God reveals himself as the mystery and the very heart of humanity’s striving for liberation, wholeness and soundness. The concept of that mystery, which is at first concealed in the praxis of liberation and of making whole, is only made explicit in the naming of that concept in the statement made in faith that God is the liberator, the promoter of what is good and the opponent of what is evil …

    edward schillebeeckx

    Comment by Steven Hoyt — February 23, 2017 @ 11:53 am

  4. notice that salvation through grace and faith are utterly different than the epistemic ascent to belief-correctness that is the true cause of the irrelevancy of evangelicalism in the above.

    note too, it is as universal as adam’s “original sin” and just as efficacious.

    it also makes sense of romans, galatians, and hebrews where remarks like “for all, and especially for those who believe” … which indicates exactly an exemplar theme of “through jesus, we see more clearly what’s going on”, but not restricting “way”, hodos, to a path with a gate and jesus being the guy who’ll let you in if you “love” him (even though many just want in and could care less).

    anyway …

    Comment by Steven Hoyt — February 23, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    • that first para is unclear. belief-correctness makes evangelicalism irrelevant, as is the means and meanings to atonement; the way out is back to the traditional reality of christianity, which is praxis, not epistemic belief and fear or reprisal, hell; the presence of god and how it transforms, being the pillar of moral influence theory, at least my spin on it.

      that’s what i meant to say.

      Comment by Steven Hoyt — February 23, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

  5. Thanks for this. I do like what McKnight had to say.

    Comment by Paul Moldovan — October 11, 2017 @ 1:12 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Your Response (Value-Added Comments Only)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: