It is the Franciscan monk Father Richard Rohr who I heard say in an interview that “A lot of times, one sees only what one is told to see”. I came away from reading Michael J. Gorman’s 2014 publication “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement” with the same feeling. How did I not see this before! Well, I didn’t see it because I wasn’t trained to see it. It was indeed hidden in plain view.
I first heard of Michael J. Gorman when he interviewed NT Wright and Richard Hays together on the implications of Wright’s big book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. In that conversation, they referred back to Gorman’s own writings on the cross, and I made a mental note to read him sometime. However, I’d been thinking of the subject of atonement for quite a long time, and someone recommended him. To that someone (David Fitch), I say “may your tribe increase”.
Previous Atonement Models
First, what do we mean by atonement, for the uninitiated? Atonement is a fancy word created from multiple words: “at-one-ment”. It describes how human beings become reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there have been many ways (or models) of explaining how this “atonement” works – some of the models are Christus Victor, substitutionary atonement, moral example etc. And it seems each tradition of Christianity gravitates to one or the other, leading to disagreements.
However, Dr Gorman begins the book by making the following statement:
“All models of the atonement are necessarily selective, because the New Testament writers did not set out to write a theology of atonement, and certain perspectives and themes emerge in particular writers and writings more than in others”.
He argues that the selective nature of these models of atonement lead to the following observations:
Current models of atonement are isolationist. “Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires exclusion of other versions of the story” (Gorman, 2014).
Drawing from the point above, current models are atomistic, not drawing from the richness of other models.
The third problem is individualism. Most models of the atonement are focused “on the individual, rather than on both the individual AND the community”(Gorman, 2014, my emphasis).
Each model under-achieves. On it’s own, each model does not do enough.
He proposes a different starting point for understanding why Jesus died – by looking at Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper in the context of Israel’s own story of covenant in both Torah and the Prophets. It seems that though other scholars may have hinted (in bits and pieces) in the same direction, he might be the first who has written in full detail what he calls a “new-covenant” model of atonement. It is here that he blows my mind. Because he points out that, this should have been obvious, but has somehow been screened out of our conversations about why Jesus died, or has not been read in light of Old Testament history and context.
The Absence of the Obvious
At the Last Supper, the evangelists Luke and Matthew record Jesus using specific words when he shares the wine as his blood.
“Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)
Though Luke uses the word “new covenant” to describe the blood of Jesus, Matthew simply says “covenant”. But the implications are the same, if we look to Moses and the prophets.
After Moses had received the Law from Yahweh (Ex 19-23), he (Yahweh) instructed him to call the elders of the people together, read it out to them and perform a ceremony. In Exodus 24, Moses does as Yahweh instructed, reading the Law to these leaders and asking them to express their agreement to do as Yahweh has instructed, which they agreed to (“they all responded, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” – v 3). Moses then sacrifices young bulls on an alter made from “twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel”(v 4). He then took the blood of the bulls, sprinkled it on the people and said the magic words “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v 8). Obviously, the blood was meant to seal the covenant between Yahweh and his nation Israel.
The observant reader will realize that these are more or less the same words that Jesus used at the Last Supper. But why does Luke say “new covenant” and why does Matthew say “for the forgiveness of sins of many”?
Here, Gorman points out that as the prophets had attributed the exile from the land to Israel’s sinful unfaithfulness to the covenant with Yahweh, the prophets again had promised that Yahweh will enact a new covenant with his people, a process which will involve him cleansing them of their former disobedience. This is best captured by the prophet Jeremiah.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)
In a nutshell then, Jesus, echoing both Moses and the prophets, states that the goal of him shedding his own blood was to enact a new covenant between God and humanity. Gorman posits that
“The forgiveness of sins is certainly important; it is an integral sign of the new exodus and new covenant. But forgiveness is only part of the larger purpose of God in the Messiah’s suffering and death; the larger purpose is to create a new people who will both be and bear universal witness to the new covenant”. (Gorman, 2014)
Gorman could have ended the book here, and I’d have been convinced, but he goes on further to clarify in what way this new covenant was different from the old one.
The Distinctives of the New Covenant
He draws out the ways in which this new covenant will be “new”, because that is precisely the word that prophets like Jeremiah used to describe it.
This covenant is enacted in and through Jesus’s self-sacrificial actions on the cross. In effect, God himself, through Jesus, sheds his blood to seal this covenant.
Drawing on the Eastern Orthodox theology of “theosis”, Gorman traces all over the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrew how the new-covenant people are not just called to be beneficiaries of this self-sacrificial action, but to participate in it as God’s means of redemption of the world, and as a means of taking on the divine nature. Hence Paul’s statements like “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Phil 3:10).
In line with point 2 above, he draws on Phil 2:5-11, point out that Jesus’s willingness to be made nothing, “taking the very nature of a servant”, shows an attitude that this new-covenant people must adopt. Its an attitude not to “lord it over”, but to serve, even one’s enemies. Indeed this new-covenant people become a people of non-violent, non-coercive, self-sacrificial love.
This new-covenant is also marked by a widening of the gates for non-Jews to be participants, unlike the previous covenant that was limited to Jews only. This is also part of the prophetic expectations being fulfilled.
An additional dimension that he points out, which I’d never observed before, is the dimension of the new-covenant being both a means of peacemaking and showing to participants in this covenant, Jesus’s way of peace. He reminds us of Paul who, when speaking of God joining Jew and Gentile together in Eph 2, states that “For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14 NIV). Drawing again on the prophetic hopes for a future King, he points out that the goal of righteousness is peace. “See, a king will reign in righteousness, and rulers will rule in justice … the fruit of that righteousness will be peace” (Is 32:1,17 NIV). This peace is not simply an inner peace in one’s individual self, but a reconciliation between all hostilities in the world – what the Jews call “shalom” i.e. wholeness. Hence Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on The Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9)
Lastly, this new-covenant will be marked by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to bind together the new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic new-covenant people of God in their ability to live self-sacrificially, non-coercively and non-violently at peace with each other, and at peace with a world in which violence still reigns, until the consummation of the kingdom yet to come. As he puts it, “Life in this new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peacemaking (and therefore hope-making) death of the same crucified Jesus” (Gorman, 2014).
Step Aside, Former Atonement Theories
And so he wraps up by restating clearly his proposal for understanding the death of Jesus Christ.
“The purpose of Jesus’s death was to effect, or give birth to, the new covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak, and servant-love for all (cruciform love) and peacemaking (cruciform hope).” (Gorman, 2014)
He goes on to the express how a new-covenant model of atonement makes sense of all the previous theories of why Jesus died, and yet overcomes all the deficiencies that one sees if one tries to hold only one of them up as the “correct” theory. In this effort then, Gorman has indeed established a way forward beyond the atonement wars, a way forward that was so obvious and yet has been missed for centuries. If taken seriously, it overcomes a lot of the earlier complaints he began with about holding one of the standard ones against the other – complaints of isolationism, individualism and underachievement.
Laying My Atonement Demons To Rest
Michael Gorman’s proposal enables me to finally lay my atonement demons to rest. One of the greatest problems I’ve had with some expressions of substitutionary atonement had been its over-reliance on legal language and it’s tendency towards individualism. A new-covenant model not only takes care of that (especially the latter), it actually places the church squarely where it should be – at the centre of understanding why Jesus died. Hear Gorman on that score:
“The existence of Christian community, then, is not an addition to atonement theology, nor a way of superficially joining together myriads of individuals who each happen to have received the forgiveness of sins. Rather, Christian community is part of atonement theology’s very essence. There is no atonement without ecclesiology, and no ecclesiology without a comprehensive account of the atonement” (Gorman, 2014)
In light of this great book, Michael J. Gorman is now very welcome on my Amazon wishlist. I believe after my personal readings of Richard Hays (whose beloved book “Moral Vision of the New Testament” was referenced quite a bit by Gorman), his 3 part series on cruciformity should be next.
It’s not everyday that one finds a United Methodist who describes himself as an Anabaptist-Wesleyan, and yet expounds Eastern Orthodox theology whiles holding a chair in New Testament at a Roman Catholic Seminary, itself a rare feat. These are divisive days, and the church needs courageous theologians like Gorman, who are not willing to let themselves be confined to the boxes of their own traditions, but are willing to seek truth where it may be found. In this respect, Gorman is indeed a gem.
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conqured, Let Us Follow Him