Long-time readers know that I’m a fan of the writings of Michael J. Gorman. I consider his Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology life defining — one of the most important books I’ve read. I did a series on it back in 2010. It’s up there with Mere Christianity as a book all church leaders should read.
The problems with most atonement theories
In The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement, Gorman now seeks to rework the church’s view of the atonement — no small task. And he does so in a way that should dramatically change how we think about the gospel and our salvation.
Atonement theology deals with the question of how we are saved. What is it about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus that saves us?
He also notes that many denominations and many congregations focus on atonement theology to the near exclusion of all else. How can the atonement be so disconnected from the rest of Christianity?
For example, a common theory of atonement is that Jesus paid the price, taking on our sins so that God’s wrath would be satisfied by the punishment meted out against Jesus — the punishment that we all deserve. And while there are certainly passages that trend in this direction, when our atonement theology centers on this theory, then salvation is about escape from the anger of God, rather than being found by the love of God. It’s almost as though Jesus defends us from his vengeful Father.
This, in turns, often leads to a legalistic Christianity, the goal being to discover the rules we must keep so that we can keep from offending a vengeful God the Father. Our view of the atonement, you see, tends to color all the rest of our Christianity — how we live, how we relate to God, and how we treat each other.
And so, when we view God as angry and anxious to damn, we tend to become angry, anxious-to-damn worshipers of God. And don’t tell me that you haven’t seen this.
Another theory, ancient but increasingly popular, is called Christus Victor, and is based on Jesus’ defeat of the powers by the cross and, most especially, the resurrection. Because the powers arrayed against God did their best — indeed, their damnedest — to defeat Jesus, with death being the ultimate power of the tyrant, the resurrection defeated the powers — Rome, the corrupt Jewish civil and temple leadership, even Satan himself. Jesus refused to submit to the temptation to earthly power and paid the price for his stand — and ultimately showed that all the powers in heaven and earth cannot defeat him.
And there are many passages that speak in these terms. This theory also fits well with recent scholarship showing how early Christianity confronted not only Roman paganism but also the emperor cult. The New Testament insists that Jesus is the true Caesar and that our citizenship and loyalty (faithfulness or faith) runs toward Jesus and Jesus only.
But opposition to demonic power is a negative theory. It doesn’t tell us what we escaped the powers to become. Escaped because what is better?
A third theory, much less popular in evangelical circles, is that Jesus’ death is an example that we should all follow in how we live as Christians. And it’s undeniably true that the New Testament repeatedly teaches that we are to become like Jesus, submitting, serving, and sacrificing as he did, especially as shown in his crucifixion.
Although we who see the atonement in supernatural terms see that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as, of course, the supreme example, we figure it must be much more than that.
All these theories tend to look at Christianity individualistically. They don’t speak to the church or the kingdom. They don’t address the place of Israel in God’s history. They don’t speak of the Spirit. And they are all about what God does for us, not what we do for God.
Toward a better theory
As a result, Gorman published an article sketching an alternative approach. We covered this in a three-part series in 2012:
His new book greatly expands on his covenant-based theory, and is not only an interesting read but a major contribution to Christian theology because it responds to the deficiencies found in more traditional models.
Our God of covenants
Gorman notes that Bible scholarship has long recognized that God is a covenanting God, and that his covenants define his relationship with his elect people. God made a covenant with Abraham (“Abram” at the time) to give him the Promised Land and to bless all nations through him, and most especially, to credit his faith as righteousness.
Because of this covenant, God entered into the Law of Moses with Israel. He later made a covenant with David. And the Old Testament prophets promised a “new covenant” that would be built on the old but better.
Jeremiah explains it this way —
(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.”
Hebrews 8 quotes the entire passage — the longest Old Testament quotation found in the New Testament. And the language of “new covenant” appears on the lips of Jesus as he inaugurates the Lord’s Supper.
This is obviously a big, big deal. And the result of the new covenant is “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest … I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Sounds like atonement.
And yet, Gorman notes, none of the atonement theories says a thing about God’s covenant. It’s completely ignored in our theorizing even though God’s covenanting with his people is a central theme of scripture.
Therefore, there is something badly wrong — at least, incomplete — with atonement theology as traditionally taught. Indeed, how is it possible that the Lord’s Supper itself, in which Jesus announced the coming of the “new covenant,” is rarely understood in covenant terms?
Personally, I think the church has so tried to separate itself and its theology from the Old Testament and the Jews that our theologians refused to look backwards to Abraham and Moses to understand. Fortunately, we’re now seeing a new generation of theologians who are unashamed to admit that Jesus and his apostles were Jews and that Christianity arose out of Judaism and is best understood in that context.