Sometimes the Answer is Right in Front of Our Noses: A Compelling Case of for “New Covenant Atonement” by Michael Gorman

In the welter of talk and writing about “atonement” during the last fifteen years or so, a few things have become clearer while others have taken on a murkier hue. It is clearer to most now that the variety of biblical images for atonement must be respected and brought into conversation with one another. No longer can or should one image for atonement rule over, overrule, or rule out the others. One writer has suggested the image of “kaleidoscopic” as the best one we have to work with now.

It is clearer to most now that unless a penal or substitutionary view is rooted in the eternal love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and the triune God’s electing from all eternity to be for us, such views are morally and theologically unacceptable. Even so, a good number of recent writers remain unwilling to have a penal or substitutionary odor of any kind in their theories of atonement (most recently, Tony Jones).

What has become murkier is whether there is or should be an image that can integrate and draw the contributions of all the various images into a coherent whole. Some, reacting to the hegemony of the penal substitution model that has reigned as the default model of atonement in the west for so long, want nothing to do with another “hegemonic” image (whatever that might be). They prefer the free play of each model in their thought. Others claim that such an image, whether a good thing or not, simply doesn’t exist within the pages of the New Testament.

One voice has recently demurred at accepting the undesirability and/or unavailability of such an image. Michael Gorman, in “Effecting the New Covenant: A (Not So) New, New Testament model for the Atonement” (Ex Auditu 2010), has proposed retrieving a model pervasively present in the New Testament itself but strangely ignored in the history of atonement theology: the New Covenant.

Sadly, I’ve not seen Gorman’s proposal get much play since his article appeared. I hope I’m wrong about that. But in any case, I think he is on to something important and that his proposal can serve to integrate the various models into a coherent whole without overruling or ruling any of them out. Thus I will offer a brief sketch of his proposal for a New Covenant atonement as an invitation for my readers to dig into the article itself for further evidence and argument. It may be the case that the answer we need is right in front of our noses.

Gorman roots his case for a New Covenant view of Jesus’ death in his institution of the meal by which his followers are to commemorate his death. Here Jesus’ talks explicitly about “covenant” and “new covenant” (Luke) in connection with his death. Numerous allusions cluster around this meal as well.

“The scriptural overtones in these accounts are rich and plentiful. The references to blood are obviously echoes of the Passover sacrifice and the Exodus, an event of liberation. Linked with “covenant,” they are probably also an echo of the covenant-renewal blood in Exod 24:6–8. Furthermore, the implicit or explicit (in Matthew) connection to forgiveness of sins suggests that Jesus’ death fulfills both the Day of Atonement in Lev 16 (plus perhaps the atoning sacrifices more generally [e.g., Lev 4:1—6:7]) and inaugurates the new covenant promised in Jer 31:31–34, which (as we will see below) includes liberation and forgiveness. That is, Jesus’ death is the means by which the people of God are liberated, forgiven, and brought into a new covenant with God.”

Paul passes this tradition of Jesus’ death establishing a “new covenant” to his churches as well (1 Corinthians 11:23,25). Further he seems to envision the life and ministry of the people of God as “new covenantal” (2 Corinthians 3-6). The book of Hebrews is, of course, replete with “new,” “better,” “eternal” covenant language.

All of this suggests that a New Covenant view of Christ’s death is both pervasive and profound in the New Testament. This makes its virtual absence from the historical and contemporary discussion quite remarkable.

Building on the one explicit Old Testament reference to “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31 and clear allusions to the same in the book of Ezekiel (Paul draws on both in 2 Corinthians 3), Gorman portrays the New Covenant community effected, or brought into being, by Jesus’ death as: “liberated, restored, forgiven, sanctified, covenantally faithful, empowered, missional, and permanent.” Surely it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive image than this!

Of course, Jesus’ mission reframes some key elements of this Old Testament expectation even as it uses it to frame a comprehensive vision for what Jesus accomplished. Gorman notes:

“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. Nonetheless, the key elements of the vision of Jeremiah and Ezekiel will remain, even if reshaped.”

Next Gorman reminds us of the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor in both the Old Testament and in Jesus. He chooses the word “faithfulness” as a term that gathers and holds together both aspects involved in the love of God – “loyalty/obedience and intimacy/communion.” And it is God’s aim, he claims, “to create a liberated and forgiven community, a faithful and loving people empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the holy character of God. That is, God wants to form a people in his own image. The new covenant will mean a new creation; the image of God will be restored, not just in individuals but in a people.”

With this framework in place, Gorman conducts a tour of the main New Testament witnesses to this New Covenant atonement – the Synoptic Gospels, John, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation. This section is the exegetical core of his proposal. I will not spoil this feast for you – you will have to read it yourself to reap the harvest!

Finally, after a brief survey of the ways this New Covenant view integrates and focuses the concerns and contributions of the other major views of atonement, Gorman closes by tying his view of atonement in with another of his signature themes, theosis –the new covenant community is drawn into and participate in the very life of God by the Spirit.

He summarizes his New Covenant atonement view in these words:

“. . . the new covenant model of the atonement in the NT. 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.”

It seems that this exegetical blind spot and the dogmatic tradition about atonement that has emerged from it continue to keep us from seeing the answer that “lies right in front of our noses.” Michael Gorman has lifted the blinders for us. May it please God that we look hard to see what he has seen and wrestle with it for the sake of the triune God who has called us to be his missional people in and for the world he dearly loves.


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