Long time readers will recall that I’m a Michael J. Gorman fan. I did a lengthy series a while back based on his Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology — which is truly a wonderful book.
I’ve also started on his Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, and I’m working through his Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb Into the New Creation. Reviews will show up one of these days, I’m sure.
So I noticed in a post at Jesus Creed, and in the footnotes to a couple of articles, a reference to Gorman’s article “Effecting the Covenant: A (Not So) New, New Testament Model for the Atonement,” in Ex Auditu – Volume 26: An International Journal of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. So I bought that issue of Ex Auditu on Amazon — for $27.19 (which is an absurdly high price to pay for one article. I really dislike how academic materials are so expensive for those unconnected to a university.).
The New Covenant Model
Gorman presents a new model for the atonement (he prefers “model” to “theory”), which he calls the New Covenant model, based, of course, on —
(Jer 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
I think this model has a lot of appeal, and perhaps it will answer one of the problems I see with the Christus Victor model. You see, Christus Victor certainly explains how the death of Jesus defeats Satan and the other spiritual powers that oppose God. But does it adequately explain how God deals with sin.
You see, the theory seems to assume that all sin comes from Satan and his minions, whereas the Scriptures — and experience — certainly place a large portion of the blame on our own bad choices. Certainly, those bad choices arise due to our flawed and broken natures, but they remain a matter of free will. After all, if we have no choice but to sin, then why blame us at all?
I’m quite willing to grant the reality and influence of demonic powers, but not willing to place all the blame for sin on them. And I don’t see how Christus Victor deals well with that problem.
Problems with traditional atonement models
Gorman points out four problems with traditional approaches to the atonement:
1. The models compete with each other rather than building on each other. Each attempts to be a complete, entirely satisfactory explanation.
2. Their failure to connect well with the rest of theology. “They do not naturally pull other aspects of theology into their orbit.” What does the atonement say about ethics? About the Spirit? About mission?
3. Traditional atonement models are all highly individualistic and say next to nothing about the church or Christian community.
4. Gorman say the traditional models suffer from “under-achievement.” The models have a very narrow scope of operating in saying just what it is that the atonement accomplishes. Is it merely forgiveness? Is it merely defeat of Satan?
I would add: Shouldn’t the atonement do much more than that? Indeed, doesn’t the traditional substitutionary theory so focus on forgiveness that the gospel only carries us out of the baptistry but not into the church and from the church into the world? Don’t we overly focus on salvation as seemingly the only issue that matters because the substitution theory only addresses forgiveness?
It’s not that we never teach the church or the mission, but that we fail to connect those things with the sacrifice of Jesus. Rather, we teach that these are commands that good Christians obey but that don’t save and aren’t really what the cross is about — which is going to heaven when we die.
Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right.
Other prophetic passages
The quoted passage from Jeremiah is the only Old Testament passage to mention the “new covenant,” but Gorman also builds his case on these two —
(Eze 11:17-20 ESV) 17 Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ 18 And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
(Eze 36:23-28 ESV) 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Regular readers will recognize all three passages as among several passages I like to use in teaching about the Holy Spirit. But I prefer to begin with Deuteronomy 30:6 —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
And so, I see the “new covenant” passages used by Gorman as a subset of a larger theme in Scripture, and I suspect the wider theme — circumcision of the heart — will bear on his New Covenant theory before we get through.
Gorman summarizes his three passages as teaching 8 characteristics of God’s covenant community:
1. Liberated (having experienced a new Exodus)
2. Restored and unified (Israel and Judah together; gather from the peoples; returned to the land of Israel; having one heart)
3. Forgiven, cleansed from unholiness and idolatry/unfaithfulness to YHWH
5. Existing in mutual covenant relationship with YHWH characterized by community-wide faithfulness, intimacy, knowledge.
6. Internally empowered and enlivened to keep the law/covenant.
7. Bearing witness of YHWH’s holiness.
8. Permanent or everlasting.
Gorman suggests that the cross radically redefines many of these features.
[I]t effects a ‘fracture’ of traditional understandings of the new covenant. 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.
the covenant-keeping that the new covenant will effect can be summarized in two phases: love of God and love of neighbor. Since the love of God in the Bible means both loyalty/obedience and intimacy/communion, we may use the word “faithfulness” to connote these senses in one word.
Gorman summarizes his views as follows:
[W]e have found have found that these [New Testament] writers, in various ways — sometimes deliberately, sometimes perhaps not — interpreted the death of Jesus in ways that correspond to those aspects of the new covenant found especially in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The prophets expected that a new covenant people who would be liberated, restored, forgiven, sanctified, covenantally faithful, empowered, missional, and permanent. The NT writers are convinced that Jesus’ death created that people.
… 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.
Now, you’ll notice that Gorman shows little interest is just how God uses the cross to accomplish this result. He merely observes that it happened (praise Jesus!) and these things are the result. Therefore, the atonement is about much, much more than forgiveness and justification.
I find that result both positive and negative. Yes! He’s right that atonement theology has been too narrow, and a narrow view of the atonement has led to a narrow theology that’s all about getting forgiven and going to heaven. We’ve made God’s mission and his church into an afterthought, a desirable outcome that has little to do with God’s “real” purpose: to get us saved.
But the “how” of the atonement is important. I’ve suggested a few thoughts in the previous posts. But I think Gorman’s article points us toward some others.