Atonement: The Covenant Model, Part 1

Product DetailsLong 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

4. Sanctified

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.

Moreover,

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.

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14 Responses to Atonement: The Covenant Model, Part 1

  1. Jerry says:

    Sounds like Gormon has hit a lot of your hot buttons! I like this preview of his thinking as well. It is especially encouraging to see a “model” for study of the atonement that does not pit one image of it against another – but seeks to blend them together into a unified concept.

  2. guy says:

    Jay,

    Aulen (who the reviewer is reviewing in the link you provided) claims that the Eastern Fathers place little emphasis on sin. i think it’s important to bear in mind that Aulen is a Lutheran; despite that he is trying to play advocate for Eastern ideas of atonement, he still does so from a Protestant perspective because he only means to defend Christus Victor inasmuch as it can be harmonized with the work of Luther. Because of this, i think an important point that’s not being expressed adequately in either Aulen or Drake Shelton’s review of Aulen (or perhaps even Luther) is that an Eastern view of what “sin” is differs from the Protestant view.

    Thus, if when you suggest that Christus Victor fails to deal adequately with sin, you have in mind a Protestant hamartiology, then i think any Eastern-theology-advocate could gladly concede the point, because they never claimed Christ’s atonement did deal with “sin” *in that sense.* i think it’s important to investigate first how the Eastern Fathers conceptualize “sin” and then how Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection deals with it.

    –guy

  3. rich constant says:

    jay i have often said atonement is an effect of the cross not what really happened at the cross.
    free will makes the mess that the cross deals with his flat.
    and the trinity had a contingency plan Christ before the foundation of the world.

    what we are talking here is possibilities………….AND GOD GOT THEM ALL COVERED

  4. JMF says:

    Guy –

    I’d be interested in hearing more about an Eastern view of sin and how it differs with a Protestant view. Have you blogged about that?

  5. guy says:

    JMF,

    There’s probably significantly better sources than me for really understanding this stuff. But i’m actually in a rush right now, so my stuff is all i have handy.

    http://modestupheaval.blogspot.com/2012/07/orthodox-view-of-fall-of-man.html

    http://modestupheaval.blogspot.com/2012/06/what-does-salvation-mean.html

    So here you go. But i’ll try to come back and give you links to much better stuff than my novice meanderings. Off to work now.

    –guy

  6. guy says:

    JMF,

    Still haven’t had a ton of time, but here’s a blurb about sin on a wiki article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Christian_theology#Sin

    –guy

  7. JMF says:

    Guy –

    I’ll check that out. I did read your blog links…interesting stuff. There are definitely some concepts in Orth that seem to make things add up for me in a way that they never have before. Specifically, the way it doesn’t seem to pit God vs. man and thusly leaves a much better (and more fatherly) picture of God.

  8. HistoryGuy says:

    Guy,
    In my understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology, the fall and redemption are radically different than the Western and Protestant “legal” view. I have held the view of ancestral sin for quite some time, but still struggle with the lack in development concerning other concepts. There was not much progress on justification due the doctrine of Theosis, correct? I always enjoy (though I find it insufficient) Irenaeus of Lyons’ recapitulation theory of atonement; I grant he was focused on the divinity and humanity of Christ when working on it. It seems the Orthodox (and Patristic church) allow several possible views of the atonement, correct? I did not know you transitioned Eastern Orthodoxy, so it seems I am behind the times (lol).

  9. guy says:

    HistoryGuy,

    You’re speaking to a novice, so i can’t speak with any expertise to much of what you bring up. i know that Orthodoxy rejects the penal-satisfaction view of atonement (and rejects most of the juridical/legal metaphor that it presupposes). From what i can tell, the atonement is more metaphysical in its mechanism rather than legal (as is Orthodoxy’s view of the Fall and the nature of salvation). And the harrowing of Hades isn’t just an odd relic of tradition, but somehow plays a key role in the efficacious-ness of the atonement.

    i haven’t gotten through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies yet, but i have listened (audio book) to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation 3 or 4 times now (and have read Aulen’s Christus Victor a couple times).

    As for allowing multiple atonement theories, the way my deacon put it to me (and another priest later confirmed) is that the mechanism of the atonement is a mystery in the sense that the trinity is, and so there are a variety of metaphors that might be used to help us understand, but they are, in the end, only metaphors and shouldn’t be pushed too far.

    –guy

  10. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Guy and Historyguy,

    You’ve inspired me to dig into the Orthodox view of the Atonement. We’ll take a break from these series for a while and then (Lord willing) we’ll come back to what else the Orthodox perspective says that can enrich our understanding.

    I find some interesting convergences between Wright/McKnight/Gorman and the Orthodox – and think there’s something here really worth investigating.

    However, I really can’t buy into Orthodoxy as a practice. Orthodoxy seems to have some remarkably insightful theology wrapped in a deeply flawed ecclessiology. For example, icons, relics, and such like are highly problematic for me. And I’m even more deeply troubled by the relationship of Orthodoxy to the state.

    The old mode of government was the patriarchate (see patriarch), but now for the most part the churches, all of which are self-governing, are each governed by a holy synod, a board of bishops and laymen, often appointed by the government; where the head of the church is called patriarch, he is often only the moderator of the synod.

    Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/eastern-orthodoxy#ixzz21DKH6fB5

    See also http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/273/must-an-orthodox-christian-be-a-monarchist/ insisting that monarchy is the only God-ordained form of civil government.

    I would also add that the history of Orthodoxy in missional terms is not good. How many Orthodox missionaries, hospitals, orphanages, etc. are scattered around the world, compare to those of the Catholics and Protestants?

    Somehow, it seems to me that Orthodoxy, because of its too-close association with the nations of the world, has been far too content to hold church and teach classes while not truly having a kingdom vision. Indeed, after centuries of Orthodox immigration to the US, immigrants still gather in Greek, Russian, and other nationalistic congregations. Where is the American Orthodox Church?

    Refocused through the narrow lens of ethnic nationalism, the 10, later 15, and ultimately 32, Orthodox “jurisdictions” in North America aimed their sights at the preservation of the Orthodox faith by means of ethnic identity, and at the preservation of ethnic values by means of religious faith.

    Culturally isolated, financially unstable, and administratively splintered, the Orthodox came to fear any kind of change—whether linguistic, theological, liturgical, or even musical. New members were little welcomed in these ethnic enclaves. Most parishes settled into an unbroken routine of local, regional, and national ethnic activities that, to their credit, at least provided a rich social life for participants. However, so self-contained and self-perpetuating were these events, the parishes that sponsored them, and the ethnic churches that encouraged them, that the passage of time in the ethnic churches can be marked in decades rather than years.

    http://oca.org/history-archives/orthodox-christians-na/chapter-7

    http://oca.org/history-archives/orthodox-christians-na/chapter-9 concludes a fascinating history of the Orthodox Churches in the USA — and very honestly critiques their own errors. For centuries, the Orthodox have struggled between being an enclave for ethnic minorities in the US vs. being missionally effective — fearing a loss of ethnic identity.

    But, of course, you can’t read Galatians and study kingdom theology and contend for nationalist churches that divide the Kingdom based on ethnicity! That does rather miss a central point of the gospel: “Neither Jew nor Greek.”

    Now, my point isn’t to diss the Orthodox and dismiss them as irrelevant. Rather, as I enter my studies, I want to look for where their theology breaks down. Where do such excellent premises fail to realize two of the central premises of the gospel –

    1. The call of the nations together into a unified Kingdom where national identities are erased in Christ.
    2. Our citizenship in heaven, that is, our allegiance to Jesus as King above all other allegiances. The Kingdom is not governed by the powers. Rather, the King will defeat the powers for the sake of the Kingdom. Therefore, to be a part of civil government or to be ruled by civil government is anti-gospel. (Many Protestants make the same mistake, but in a very different way, by becoming a special interest group within one of the nation’s two ruling political parties.)

    On the other hand, as I argued in “The Crucified God” series, I think there’s a lot we can learn from the Orthodox. A whole lot. But somewhere … and I’m not sure where … they missed a critical turn.

  11. JMF says:

    My brief study into Orthodoxy is similar to Jay’s. For me, the Orthodox nail the “overarching” narrative of Christianity with Christus Victor, etc.

    I haven’t spent enough time studying, but I’m having trouble reconciling how they view the Bible…it seems they view the Bible THOUGH the lens of the ECF, rather than viewing the ECF through the Bible.

    But this is an exciting study for me b/c it seems like (in my mind) I’m finally able to start connecting some pieces about God, the Fall, death, etc. that have always troubled me.

  12. guy says:

    Jay,

    i’m really no expert. i’ve only been attending an Orthodox parish since January. So i’m not even going to try to speak to the points you raise. All i know is that probably since 2006, i’ve gone to Celebrate Recovery off and on. After every single meeting, i walked out of CR thinking, why isn’t church like this? So far, for me, Orthodoxy is “like this.” i was looking for a hospital for sinners, and i honestly believe i found one. That’s “vision” enough for me at this point.

    –guy

  13. guy says:

    Jay,

    i had dinner with my priest last night and posed some of your questions to him. He seemed very forthright that Orthodoxy has room for self-criticism in particular points of relation to the state, and that many priests/laity/bishops are/were critical of such flaws. We talked about several historical particulars, but his general point was that believing that God is leading the church does not entail that everyone in the church at any given time is doing the right thing or measuring up to an ideal. In fact, many may be missing the mark. But God can use even less-than-ideal situations and behaviors to lead a people (a lesson frequently seen in the OT).

    He also said that there actually are quite a great number of Orthodox hospitals, schools, and charitable organizations. However, they’re mostly present in Eastern European countries where Orthodox numbers are strong, and there aren’t very many in America simply because Orthodoxy in America is still young (the first mission to America occurred in Alaska in 1794) and numerically small (less than 1% of the population). He didn’t see that there was any particularly distinct understanding of benevolent missions between Orthodoxy and the other religious groups who build charitable organizations. Our parish is working on building an elementary school on site within the next several years, there are now a couple of Orthodox undergraduate colleges in America and you might even check out the International Orthodox Christian Charities (http://www.iocc.org/).

    You didn’t elaborate on icons or relics, so i don’t know exactly what to say about those. Interestingly though, neither of those were problematic for me when i decided to switch (other things definitely were). i see icons and relics as part of the natural consequences/outworkings of the views/philosophies N.T. Wright argued for in Surprised by Hope–letting go of any remnant traces of Platonism in our Christianity. Icons have been explained to me by several different people as essentially a family photo album and an emphasis on Orthodox belief in the goodness of God’s created material world (particularly why icons of Christ are important). Relics don’t seem much different to me than the woman with the issue of blood reaching for Christ’s cloak, or from people wanting Peter’s shadow or Paul’s handkerchief to touch them, or from God’s use of Elijah’s bones to heal. Clearly relics from good spiritual examples were important to Christians at least as early as the martyrdom of Polycarp.

    –guy

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