Covenant Atonement

Covenant Atonement July 22, 2014

Michael J. Gorman expresses some surprise in his The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant that there hasn’t been a developed “covenant” model of the atonement. We have substitutionary, sacrificial, Christus Victor, moral influence, and so on, but no model that uses the biblical category of “covenant” to organize the whole. 

Gorman overstates the historical point; in Reformed federal theology, the covenant plays a prominent role in atonement theology. Still, a covenant model has never gained quite the stature of the others. That is a bit odd. Gorman rightly argues that this is a “not so new” model, since it’s rooted in the New Testament. 

By as “covenant” model, he means a model that emphasizes that the “ultimate” goal of Jesus’ death is to realize the prophetic promise of the new covenant by gathering a transformed people, empowered by the Spirit to live in courageous, suffering faith, hospitable love, and peaceable hope. Christ’s death is the source of this community of the new covenant, and, as the community participates in Christ by the Spirit, His death on the cross also provides the cruciform shape of that community’s life and mission. The new covenant model, he argues, integrates what is often separated – ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, mission – and is able to incorporate the best insights of the more common atonement models into a larger whole. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of atonement, the “how,” the covenant model focuses on the “what”; instead of stopping with penultimate ends of the atonement (forgiveness of sins, for instance) the covenant model highlights the ultimate aim, the formation of a people.

Gorman makes a compelling case for this model, first by identifying the elements of the prophetic promise and then by demonstrating that those elements are evident throughout the New Testament. Along the way, he offers a neat response to New Testament theologies that would posit a gap between Jesus and Paul, and, surprisingly, argues that one important but neglected element of continuity between the two is an emphasis on participation.

This is a stimulating and helpful book, but I have a few criticisms. First, while Gorman is correct that “peace” is a more prominent feature of New Testament teaching that is sometimes thought, I don’t think this translates simply into “non-violence.” Second, Gorman’s emphasis on the distinction between the “how” and the “what” works against his best intentions. His denial that he’s talking about “mechanics” of atonement assumes an idea of “mechanics” borrowed from other models, models that he thinks are limited in scope. He comes closer to what I think is his stronger argument toward the end of the book when he suggests that the “how” includes not only Jesus’ “objective accomplishment” but His disciples’ “subjective participation” (210). In short, I don’t see Gorman ignoring “how”; rather, he offers a perspective from which the “mechanics” can be reconsidered, perhaps more adequately. After all, the “how” questions cannot help but arise: If we claim that the death of a Jewish teacher 2000 years ago changed the world, we’d better be prepared with some answer to the inevitable “how” questions.

Finally, I think Gorman’s argument would have been clearer and firmer if he had paid more attention to the features of the “old” covenant that Jesus fulfills. Gorman begins with the prophets, but spends most of his time in the New Testament. Discussing Hebrews inevitably takes him back to Leviticus, but not enough. If the atonement gives birth to the new covenant, then the atonement is understood in large measure by the difference of old and new. The scholastics understood this; Thomas set his discussion of the Passion in the context of a discussion of the movement from the “old law” to the “new.” We can’t satisfactorily grasp what it is we’re being redeemed from unless we know more about the old world.

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