Atonement, Michael Gorman’s Thesis

This post is by Lee Wyatt, who blogs at Marginal Christianity.

Sometimes the Answer is Right in Front of Our Noses: A Compelling Case of for “New Covenant Atonement” by Michael Gorman

In the welter of talk and writing about “atonement” during the last fifteen years or so, a few things have become clearer while others have taken on a murkier hue.  It is clearer to most now that the variety of biblical images for atonement must be respected and brought into conversation with one another.  No longer can or should one image for atonement rule over, overrule, or rule out the others.  One writer has suggested the image of “kaleidoscopic” as the best one we have to work with now.

It is clearer to most now that unless a penal or substitutionary view is rooted in the eternal love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and the triune God’s electing from all eternity to be for us, such views are morally and theologically unacceptable.  Even so, a good number of recent writers remain unwilling to have a penal or substitutionary odor of any kind in their theories of atonement (most recently, Tony Jones).

What has become murkier is whether there is or should be an image that can integrate and draw the contributions of all the various images into a coherent whole.  Some, reacting to the hegemony of the penal substitution model that has reigned as the default model of atonement in the west for so long, want nothing to do with another “hegemonic” image (whatever that might be).  They prefer the free play of each model in their thought.  Others claim that such an image, whether a good thing or not, simply doesn’t exist within the pages of the New Testament.

One voice has recently demurred at accepting the undesirability and/or unavailability of such an image.  Michael Gorman, in “Effecting the New Covenant:  A (Not So) New, New Testament model for the Atonement” (Ex Auditu 2010), has proposed retrieving a model pervasively present in the New Testament itself but strangely ignored in the history of atonement theology:  the New Covenant.

Sadly, I’ve not seen Gorman’s proposal get much play since his article appeared.  I hope I’m wrong about that.  But in any case, I think he is on to something important and that his proposal can serve to integrate the various models into a coherent whole without overruling or ruling any of them out.  Thus I will offer a brief sketch of his proposal for a New Covenant atonement as an invitation for my readers to dig into the article itself for further evidence and argument.  It may be the case that the answer we need is right in front of our noses.

Gorman roots his case for a New Covenant view of Jesus’ death in his institution of the meal by which his followers are to commemorate his death.  Here Jesus’ talks explicitly about “covenant” and “new covenant” (Luke) in connection with his death.  Numerous allusions cluster around this meal as well.

“The scriptural overtones in these accounts are rich and plentiful. The references to blood are obviously echoes of the Passover sacrifice and the Exodus, an event of liberation. Linked with “covenant,” they are probably also an echo of the covenant-renewal blood in Exod 24:6–8. Furthermore, the implicit or explicit (in Matthew) connection to forgiveness of sins suggests that Jesus’ death fulfills both the Day of Atonement in Lev 16 (plus perhaps the atoning sacrifices more generally [e.g., Lev 4:1—6:7]) and inaugurates the new covenant promised in Jer 31:31–34, which (as we will see below) includes liberation and forgiveness. That is, Jesus’ death is the means by which the people of God are liberated, forgiven, and brought into a new covenant with God.”

Paul passes this tradition of Jesus’ death establishing a “new covenant” to his churches as well (1 Corinthians 11:23,25).  Further he seems to envision the life and ministry of the people of God as “new covenantal” (2 Corinthians 3-6).  The book of Hebrews is, of course, replete with “new,” “better,” “eternal” covenant language.

All of this suggests that a New Covenant view of Christ’s death is both pervasive and profound in the New Testament.  This makes its virtual absence from the historical and contemporary discussion quite remarkable.

Building on the one explicit Old Testament reference to “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31 and clear allusions to the same in the book of Ezekiel (Paul draws on both in 2 Corinthians 3), Gorman portrays the New Covenant community effected, or brought into being, by Jesus’ death as: “liberated, restored, forgiven, sanctified, covenantally faithful, empowered, missional, and permanent.” Surely it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive image than this!

Of course, Jesus’ mission reframes some key elements of this Old Testament expectation even as it uses it to frame a comprehensive vision for what Jesus accomplished.  Gorman notes:

“For example, covenant faithfulness and holiness will take on a cruciform shape, meaning sacrificial self-giving, sometimes even to the point of death. Moreover, the reconstituted community will unite, not merely Israel and Judah, but Jews and Gentiles. Nonetheless, the key elements of the vision of Jeremiah and Ezekiel will remain, even if reshaped.”

Next Gorman reminds us of the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor in both the Old Testament and in Jesus.  He chooses the word “faithfulness” as a term that gathers and holds together both aspects involved in the love of God – “loyalty/obedience and intimacy/communion.”  And it is God’s aim, he claims, “to create a liberated and forgiven community, a faithful and loving people empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the holy character of God. That is, God wants to form a people in his own image. The new covenant will mean a new creation; the image of God will be restored, not just in individuals but in a people.”

With this framework in place, Gorman conducts a tour of the main New Testament witnesses to this New Covenant atonement – the Synoptic Gospels, John, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation.  This section is the exegetical core of his proposal.  I will not spoil this feast for you – you will have to read it yourself to reap the harvest!

Finally, after a brief survey of the ways this New Covenant view integrates and focuses the concerns and contributions of the other major views of atonement, Gorman closes by tying his view of atonement in with another of his signature themes, theosis –the new covenant community is drawn into and participate in the very life of God by the Spirit.

He summarizes his New Covenant atonement view in these words:

“. . . the new covenant model of the atonement in the NT. Christ’s death effected the new covenant, meaning specifically the creation of a covenant community of forgiven and reconciled disciples, inhabited and empowered by the Spirit to embody a new covenant spirituality of cruciform loyalty to God and love for others, thereby participating in the life of God and in God’s forgiving, reconciling, and covenanting mission to the world.”

It seems that this exegetical blind spot and the dogmatic tradition about atonement that has emerged from it continue to keep us from seeing the answer that “lies right in front of our noses.”  Michael Gorman has lifted the blinders for us.  May it please God that we look hard to see what he has seen and wrestle with it for the sake of the triune God who has called us to be his missional people in and for the world he dearly loves.

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  • gingoro

    “That is, Jesus’ death is the means by which the people of God are liberated, forgiven, and brought into a new covenant with God.”

    As a sinner this is the change that I really care about, ie that I can be in right relationship with God (ie the Trinity) through the cross. All the images of how the cross works while important are secondary! As a person who holds a moderate reformed position I really fail to understand the high calvinist and neo reformed emphasis on penal substitution although I accept penal substitution as one of the valid understandings of what occurred but other images are also quite valid for the complex transaction that occurred upon Calvary.
    Dave W

  • Steve Sherwood

    Larry Shelton, professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary has an excellent book, “Cross and Covenant” that both surveys the current atonement landscape and puts forth a covenant framework for the atonement that sounds very similar to this. As Gorman suggests, relational covenant language seems to permeate the text, both Old and New and may just be the atonement theory that truly is “right in front of our noses.”

    A distinction that rarely gets made it seems to me is that substitution can be conceived of in “penal” terms, but this is not the limit to ways it can be conceived. The PS folks have claimed “substitutionary atonement” as their sole domain and I think this is inaccurate and profoundly unfortunate.

  • I agree that if any set of words could draw together all the metaphors for atonement “new covenant” is the best choice.

    The trouble is that the words “new covenant” themselves are laden with baggage today. Most evangelicals hear them at least once a month (or more) when “taking communion” but I believe I speak for the majority when I say that “new covenant” has become a sort of dispensational shorthand for “new way to go to heaven = grace instead of works”.

    I’ve been thinking about this and would love some input. The “old covenant” was a one way contract between God and Abraham. God promised to be “for” Abraham and demanded nothing in return. Abraham responded by believing that this is true.

    Christ essentially repeats this transaction anew. It is not a different KIND of transaction–the Word of God that he is “for” us is eternal–but is rather a “new” manifestation of the same covenant made with Abraham, except for two important twists: 1. With Abraham, God passed through the remains of animal sacrifice prepared by Abraham. In the new covenant He passed through the death of Christ—self sacrifice. 2. Christ taught that the Way of Eternal Living (theosis) is to believe BY CO-PARTICIPATING in his shed blood and broken body for all others.

    The “new covenant” is therefore BOTH a renewing and expanding of God’a eternal covenant (that He is For us and demands nothing in exchange for his unconditional loving advocacy) AND an invitation to Shalom (union with God/Divine Love/eternally resting peace) in and through becoming the sacrificial offering (the animal torn in two) through which God passes as he proclaims his eternal covenant to the world.

    The more I re-read the NT the more convinced I become that “Christ is king” is the same as saying “death of self for love of neighbor” is the Way to Life. You just can’t separate the name of Christ from the life and death of Christ.

    In the end no metaphor for atonement will suffice to express these truths. Every sentence will fail. It is not in words that God will be revealed—it is in death for love.

    The atonement then is wrapped up in not in metaphors and language but in an Other’s experience of Truth (that is, Life- Giving Death) in me.

    This Life-Giving Death will be “the Way” until all has been concquered by its power, until every other rule, power, and authority has been shown to be powerless and placed under subjection to Christ. Then the final death will be that of death itself and the Way of Christ’s death will be no more, being swallowed up by Love so that God may be all in all.

    The new covenant then is that, until that final day, we live only so far as we give ourselves to death.

    So… Those are a summary of my reflections (see 1 Corinthians 12 for that last part). I welcome any thoughts.

  • I find Gorman’s proposal to be helpful. I would be interested in seeing his exegetical work. I do agree that we need room at the table for various atonement theories. I like Hans Boersma’s use of the metaphor of hospitality as a way to bring the three classic theories (moral influence, Christus victor, and penal substitution) together. See his book *Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross* for more info. Boersma has helped me see “penal representation” (his term) in light of recapitulation. All things are summed up in Christ including the system of obedience-reward and disobedience-punishment. This view is similar (in my thinking) to Gorman’s “New Covenant “proposal.

  • Luke

    I like what he says about the kaleidoscopic view.

    Seems to me that all the (orthodox) views are helpful to understanding the mystery of the Cross, but none are sufficient on their own.

  • Maybe I didn’t see it in the summary: what is it about the cross that effects atonement (and how does New Covenant language help to capture that effect)? Part of the reason the penal substitutionary view carries such force is that it gives a clear (even if not comprehensive or adequate) answer to the question of “why the cross?” How does the cross effect all the benefits mentioned?

    I agree with the direction of the argument, that we need a more thoroughly biblical view of atonement, which includes much more than just penal substitution. It reminds me of Gustav Aulen’s book, first published in the 1930s, I think, that speaks to this question.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    I haven’t read the article, but Gorman’s line of thought seems to me to be on the right track and has resonances with the thinking of NT Wright. While I don’t use “new covenant” as a comprehensive organizing motif, I have explicated both Jesus’ self-understanding of his own death and resurrection in terms of “new exodus” and “new covenant” and Paul’s understanding of the cross in terms of the “story of redemption” (closely connected to exodus and covenant) in my book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012), esp. Chapters 8 & 9.

  • Grant

    In “Inhabiting the Crucifirm God” Gorman writes: “Thus Christ’s death is not merely a representative, messianic act or a substitutionary act. It is, more specifically and importantly, the quintessential covenantal act, in which love of God and of neighbor are joined and embodied in one act of a faithful, loving death. And because Paul sees Christ not only as Israel’s Messiah but also as Adam’s antitype (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22, 45), such an act is also the quintessential human act” (62-63).

    Seems that Gorman is developing this theme in his new book. Look forward to reading it.

  • Tim Sargent

    Thank you Nate, for your reflections (comment #3). Very helpful reminder of the grace focus of the Abrahamic covenant. God himself passing through the halves of the sacrifice, saying in effect, “This is the length to which I’m willing to go to keep this covenant.” I think of this (and sometimes speak to it) when I break the bread in two halves and recite, “This is my body, which is for you.” Jesus is God’s fulfillment of going to those lengths!
    Also helpful in the post is the connection between new covenant and New Creation. In the cross we see the beginning end times judgment (death) and the beginning of the New Creation (resurrection).

  • Thanks to Lee for writing this piece, to Scott for posting it, and to all for your comments. I am developing the Ex Auditu article to which Lee referred into a small book that should be out late this year or early next, God willing. The thesis of the book is that, with respect to the death of Jesus, the NT writers are less concerned about the “mechanics” of atonement than about its outcome, creating the people of the new covenant who embody the story of the cross in their daily individual and communal lives. I argue that this has its roots in the teaching of Jesus himself. A subsequent book will explore this theme once again in Paul, focusing on Pauline communities as missional communities. A foretaste of that book can be found in my article on justification and justice in issue 1.1 of the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters.