Reviewed by Patrick Schreiner
Michael Gorman, professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, seeks to provide a new (or not so new) model of the atonement. He argues that most models are piecemeal, overemphasize the penultimate purpose of the atonement, and focus on the mechanics. His proposal is more integrated, communal, participatory and missional than the other models.
For those unaware, the other models of atonement are usually divided into three large categories: penal substitution emphasizes the sacrificial and punishment aspects of the atonement: Christus Victor explains Jesus’s victory over the spiritual forces: the moral influence model illuminates how Jesus is to be an example.
Gorman proposes what he calls “a new-covenant model.” He argues it is broader because it incorporates the other models, yet also focuses on the ultimate purpose of the atonement, to create a new-covenant people.
The purpose of Jesus’ 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). (203)
The advantages to this model, according to Gorman, are numerous. First, is it more comprehensive and integrated in character. The other models tend to be isolationist and non-integrative while Gorman’s theology of Jesus’s death becomes inseparable from ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, missiology, and even politics. Second, the new-covenant model pulls various aspects of the prophetic vision together. Third, the new-covenant model incorporate and integrates various aspects of the other models. Fourth, this model is more communal in emphasis. Fifth, this model incorporates the Holy Spirit as central. Sixth, Jesus’s death remains connected to his life. Seventh, the cross remains central as the source and shape of salvation. Eighth, the new-covenant means both continuity and discontinuity with the old covenant. And finally, the spirituality of the new-covenant is decidedly this-worldly spirituality.
Gorman argues for this new model by going to Scripture. He notes the curious absence of new-covenant language and theology from discussions about the atonement. Chapters 2 and 3 then survey parts of the New Testament and their contribution to the new-covenant model. He then focuses on the Gospels and Acts examining the three passion predictions in Mark arguing that they summon people to (a) cruciform witness and suffering, (b) cruciform hospitality to the weak, and (c) cruciform service to all. Jesus’s death effected forgiveness, but also empowers people to practices of faithfulness and love. In chapter 3 Gorman turns to Paul through Revelation. He points out the use of “new-covenant” language in 1 and 2 Corinthians and the inseparability of reconciliation with God and with others in Pauline theology and practice. Gorman concludes his analysis noting the importance of concrete practices to express the reality of the new-covenant.
It is those concrete practices of the new-covenant that comprise chapters 4 through 7. Cruciform faithfulness (faith) is the subject of chapter 4 where Gorman examines the participatory images of baptism and co-crucifixion. Chapter 5 examines cruciform love (love) and shifts from the vertical to the horizontal practices of hospitality, servanthood, and love. Chapters 6 and 7 look at cruciform peace (hope). Gorman notes the lack of scholarly attention to the theme of peace in the New Testament and argues that for Paul and Luke the eschatological age is one primarily of peace.
Most readers will walk away from Gorman’s book agreeing that the new-covenant model of the atonement is comprehensive. Gorman does an excellent job showing how his model is more inclusive. But lingering questions remain. Questions such as: does he do justice to the expansiveness of the other models? Is this how the New Testament describes what has happened on the cross? Does his expansiveness lead to a flattening of all the facets of the atonement? Most importantly, does what Gorman denies about the nature of the atonement fit with the Biblical witness.
New-covenant in the New Testament
Initially, some may balk at Gorman’s thesis arguing that the New Testament infrequently speaks of the new-covenant. But as often quipped, just because the words do not appear, does not mean the concept is not present. Although the jibe back of course would be if so central, why are the words not there more often. So what evidence does one have of the new-covenant connected to Christ’s death in the New Testament?
The clear references come in 1 Cor 11:23, 25 and 2 Cor 3-6. Here Paul affirms that Jesus’s death establishes the new-covenant. Further, he seems to envision the life of God’s people as fulfilling the promises of the new-covenant. Unfortunately, the rest of the references to the concept come in more concealed form. The references to blood echo the covenantal promises. The connection of Jesus’s death to the forgiveness of sins suggests that Jesus’s death fulfills both the Day of Atonement and inaugurates the new-covenant. The book of Hebrews abounds in “new” and “better” language probably also pointing to the reality of the new-covenant.
So although the Scriptural overtones are not as rich and plentiful as some might assume, they do seem to be present. The evaluation of the rest of the evidence Gorman presents will depend on how much one sees new-covenant themes in the rest of the NT and the priority of this theme in general. For example, James Dunn argues Paul’s use of διαθήκη is “ambiguous,” while Stanley Porter argues one cannot simply do a word study. Using Louw and Nida he shows that terms such as διατίθημι, ἔγγυος, μεσίτης, ἐπαγγελία, the δικαιο- word group, and the διακον- word group may contain semantic overlap with διαθήκη. N.T. Wright agrees that covenant is a primary concept for Paul.
Exegesis needs the concordance, but it cannot be ruled by it. It is no argument against calling Paul a covenantal theologian to point out the scarcity of διαθήκη in his writings. We have to learn to recognize still more important things, such as implicit narratives and allusions to large biblical themes. Just because we cannot so easily look them up in a reference book that does not make them irrelevant. (N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005], 26).
The level of agreement with Gorman’s thesis will partially rest on how much the reader sees the new-covenant in the New Testament.
But another issue is also worth pursuing. Gorman consistently states that the New Testament is not interested in the mechanics of the atonement, but rather the results. This is a swipe at both the Christus Victor and the substitutionary model. But one must further investigate what Gorman means by this. For if the cross is the mechanic of the atonement, then the New Testament is very much interested in the mechanic. In fact, it seems Paul is equally interested in the mechanics of the atonement as the results. It would be unfair to charge those holding to either Christus Victor or the substitutionary model that they are claiming Paul is indifferent to the results. What is fair in Gorman’s analysis is that the new-covenant model does bring the participatory elements and the mechanics into one comprehensive whole more clearly.
But Gorman could also mean that the New Testament is not interested in the mechanics meaning that it does not regularly go into the details of propitiation, expiation, and satisfaction. Although I would be closer to affirming this, one does need to consider that there is some material in the Paul’s writings concerning these items. The emphasis on forgiveness of sins, on blood are not only new-covenant themes, but substitutionary themes. Therefore, while I agree his model is more comprehensive, it is more comprehensive precisely because it includes the mechanics of the atonement.
Although Gorman may have not done justice to the arguments of the other models, his model does more clearly incorporate ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. Some might argue that such a big blanket thrown over the atonement covers precipices rather than revealing them.
The promises of the new-covenant in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah are internal transformation, forgiveness of sins, and return to the land. Ezekiel emphasizes the role of the Spirit in this, and Isaiah uniquely emphasizes the role of the suffering servant in establishing the covenant. Elements of soteriology, ecclesiology, and ethics are also all part of the new-covenant.
The question becomes whether in the new-covenant there also is an element which is foundational? The danger in Gorman’s proposal is not so much what he affirms, but in what he denies. The substitutionary nature and mechanics of the atonement seem to be at the very heart of what the atonement means. Not only is forgiveness of sins part of the new-covenant, but arguably it is the foundation of it. Jeremy Treat, in his book The Crucified King, has argued that there needs to be an expansive particularity to the atonement, and maybe so too with Gorman’s new-covenant model. Expansive, because it eschews reductionism, and particular because it stays away from relativism. Treat argues that penal substitution stands at the foundation, with the other elements of the atonement flowing out from substitution. In other words, it is worthwhile to rank the elements for it is impossible to give equal weight to everything. Although I am not opposed to what Gorman affirms in his new-covenant model, I do wonder if he has actually lost the inclusivism he is aiming for.
Those wrestling with the nature of the atonement should read this book. Even if one does not agree with Gorman’s conclusion, it will push readers to think about the ultimate telos of the atonement, and to consider how much the mechanics are emphasized.
Patrick Schreiner is Instructor of New Testament Language and Literature, Western Seminary.
Buy the books
The Death Of The Messiah And The Birth Of The New Covenant: A (not So) New Model Of The Atonement