Discussions on the atonement are never-ending, and it’s only getting harder to keep up. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but where ought one start? Michael Gorman, author of numerous books (Reading Revelation Responsibly, Becoming the Gospel, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, etc), has written “a (not so) new model of the atonement.” This model argues for
a more comprehensive, integrated, participatory, communal, and missional model than any of the major models in the tradition. It overcomes the inherent rift in many interpretations of the atonement between the benefits of Jesus’ death and the practices of participatory discipleship that his death both enables and demands. I contend throughout the book that in the New Testament the death of Jesus is not only the source , but also the shape , of salvation. It therefore also determines the shape of the community—the community of the new covenant—that benefits from and participates in Jesus’ saving death. (4)
Throughout the book, Gorman presents connections between Christ’s atonement, the new covenant inaugurated by his blood, and the way the church community participates in his death and suffering while looking forward to the day of resurrection. One of Gorman’s focuses is how Christ’s new-creational people participate in faithfulness, love, and peace (4).
Throughout the New Testament, faith, as a practice, is about faithfulness even to the point of suffering and death; love, as a practice, has a distinctive, Christlike shape of siding with the weak and eschewing domination in favor of service; and hope, as a practice, means living peaceably (which includes nonviolently) and making peace. Thus the summary triad “faithfulness, love, and peace” is appropriate. (4-5)
Gorman isn’t concerned to interact with other interpretations of the atonement, nor with the “mechanics” of the atonement or the atonement theories. Rather than diving into how it works, Gorman wants to portray what it does in the lives of believers. Gorman claims, “The New Testament is much more concerned about what Jesus’ death does for and to humanity than how it does it.” (5).
- Chapter one overviews the lack of the “new covenant” theme in traditional and recent discussions of the atonement. Gorman puts forth that new covenant texts and themes had a farther-reaching effect that many scholars give credit, and that the new covenant is the atonements umbrella theme.
The preceding chapters explore the ways Christ’s death both effected and affected the new covenant.
- Chapters two and three bring together the cross and the new covenant by surveying the NT books, revealing how we participate in Christ’s death through baptism.
- Participating in Christ’s death means a different way of living for the Christian. Chapter four examines faithfulness to God, chapter five—loving others, and chapters six and seven—peacemaking—what the covenant does and how it shows up in our communities.
- Chapter eight is Gorman’s conclusion. “The cross shapes each of these aspects of Christian thought and life, weaving them together into a comprehensive and integrated whole” (209). The new covenant’s effects are multi-dimensional; Gorman views this new covenantal model as the umbrella model which houses the other “penultimate” models. There is no “one” view, as many of them emphasize different aspects of the atonement. Though I would think of it more as a hierarchy, with some (penal substitution) deserving greater (and not lesser) emphasis than others.
Gorman argues for a kind of theosis, saying that the Christian life/community is a “transformative, communal participation in the life of God as the new covenant people of God” (68). Belief in Jesus is not merely an intellectual assent. Instead, “his story will become [our] story” (87). We live out his story daily. In writing about Revelation 1.5-6, Gorman says, “Those liberated from sin by Jesus’ death (the cross as the source of salvation) are now shaped into faithful witnesses, even to the point of suffering and death (the cross as the shape of salvation)” (103). John reminds the churches that he is their brother and fellow participant in both the tribulation and the kingdom (Rev 1.9).
The Spoiled Milk
Gorman has helpful comments about the new covenant and a supersessionist/anti-Judaism belief. He says, “the idea of a new covenant does not make sense except, first of all, as a category of Jewish identity and theology” (23). This promise was given to the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were allowed to be grafted in (Rom 11). Gentile Christians must not forget the Jewish origins of Christianity (i.e., Jesus was a Jew). However, in some places Gorman seems to downplay the “newness” of the new covenant (23, 214). There is no need to disparage the “old covenant,” but Paul said that the old one has been abolished and done away with (see here) because the glory of the new is so much better (2 Cor 3.7–11). Though, perhaps I have simply misunderstood Dr. Gorman’s arguments.
Whether or not one agrees with all Gorman has said here, this book is an excellent resource for those who are interested in the new covenant, the atonement, and the outflow of new-covenant living (peace, faithfulness, love). We were once an enemy of God, and he has now made peace with us so that we can be his eternally adopted children. Should that not play out in our own lives? This would be beneficial required reading in seminary classrooms, for students, for pastors, and for teachers. This would make a good pair with Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which surveys the many atonement models and looks at how they emphasize a true aspect of Christ’s work.
- Author: Michael J. Gorman
- Paperback: 292 pages
- Publisher: James Clarke/Lutterworth (June 30, 2014)
- A Scholar’s Devotion with Michael Gorman
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