Book Review of Michael Gorman’s “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant”

One of the atonement books I was assigned this quarter was the book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant by Michael Gorman. This was a fantastic read. Gorman saw that many of the atonement theories offered, especially since the Reformation, are both too mechanistic in focus and/or myopic in scope. He seeks in this book to offer a comprehensive and fundamental layer of atonement understanding that will allow all of the theories to have space to interact and find meaning in relation to one another rather than demand a singular allegiance. Gorman calls this “new” method or theory of the atonement a “new covenant” approach.

Gorman uses the first three chapters of his book to lay out that the cross created a new covenant people of God, the primary aim of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He first shows how the New Testament’s claims the followers of King Jesus are liberated and reshaped as the covenant people, who are now rightly in relation to God and one another, by means of the cross. He then shows how these experiences of salvific liberation and unity are fulfillments of the covenant promises in the Old Testament. By showing these new covenant promises as fulfilled through the atonement of the cross Gorman proposes that the current options of atonement theories are inadequate, especially when they try to explain all aspects of salvation.

The next few chapters are dedicated to understanding the new covenant atonement as an atonement that is participated in and performed. For Gorman, since “the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross is to create a people of the covenant”, then “[t]he cross… must be understood not only not only as the source but also as the shape of salvation.”[1] Because of this the new covenant community takes on three particular ways of practicing the atonement: cruciform faithfulness, cruciform love, and cruciform peace. Each of these practices are imitations of God in and through King Jesus that allows for actual participation within the life of God through the Spirit. Cruciform faithfulness offers a way of life that manifests hope. This faithfulness allows sufferings to be redeemed in God’s salvation since his faithful presence with the new covenant people assures Christians of the promise of resurrection found in King Jesus. Cruciform love takes the faithfulness that is willing to suffer for God and extends it to those with whom God himself suffered. Since the new covenant atonement is for a whole people born out of the broken world then in order to practice the love of the atonement Christians must be willing to faithfully suffer for others too. Lastly, cruciform peace offers a way of life. This life, faithful to the imitation and participation in the sufferings of King Jesus, is for the world by inviting it into the new covenant people and is proactively seeking to redeem the relationships broken within Creation. Gorman calls this peacekeeping and peacemaking, which means seeking to manifest the realities of salvation which have been created in the cross of King Jesus. Gorman does not believe salvation should be seen as something a person is able to simply benefit from, rather it is a fully encompassing (baptizing) participatory reality which will be manifest in the life of those who become a part of God’s covenant people. In this way it connects with Bonhoeffer’s teachings against “cheap grace”.

At the end of this book it becomes clear Gorman has undertaken a massive task. He seeks to shift the very foundation of all other atonement theories by offering them all a place and structure for language. This new environment for atonement theories allows those studying these theories to place them within a larger frame of reference, allowing the theories to play off one another and develop a larger picture (the new covenant people of God) rather than solve specific theological issues. Gorman believes, and in many ways excellently persuades, that “the New Testament writers are far less interested in the mechanics of atonement than they are the results of atonement.”[2] This is the gem of Gorman’s work in this book; the atonement is not simply something that God did in order to make salvation possible but it is the work in the cross that continues in and through the covenant people of God today in the Spirit. Atonement in a new covenant model offers ways of approaching the cross from all of the Scriptural and traditional theories, but more than that offers the very story of King Jesus as the paradigm through which the cross finds its meaning and continued purpose.

This, I believe, is what Gorman offers to those who teach in the churches. The atonement is something that should be taught from the vantage point of its salvific results rather than by its particular mechanics. While a teacher or preacher who is going through the epistle to the Hebrews will need to stress the sacrificial metaphors of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of forgiveness, the creation of a forgiven people, is what should be stressed most strongly. In other words, the atonement is teleological, or in better theological terms, eschatological. The atonement is the “when and where” event in which the people of God and God are most fully made one—in King Jesus on the cross. While it may seem like an event in the past, the cross is the future of all things. The cross is atonement because it achieved the end which all Christians, the whole new covenant people of God, are participating in for all of eternity. Such a generalized theory of atonement leaves many specific things about salvation unanswered, but Gorman’s new covenant atonement theory is as wide as the Biblical story’s view of salvation. It is this story, culminated in the cross of King Jesus’ gospel, which is the atonement we offer to all the world.


 

[1] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not so) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 175, 213.

[2] Gorman, 210.

Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

The week before classes I chose to read through a book on my shelf I’ve been waiting to have time for just to get the academic juices pumping again before the semester began. The book was Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness by Larry Hurtado. It has been a number of years since I had read Hurtado’s book How on earth did Jesus become a god? back in undergrad, but the enjoyment of that book prompted my excitement for this one. Destroyer of the gods did not disappoint me. The clear prose of the sections, the lack of literary or academic fluff, the rigorous notes for further readings, and the quality of the summaries on ancient social or religious practices were phenomenal.

The premise of the books lies in the reality that non-Christians, both Jews and “pagans”, deemed Christian belief and practice as dubious as best and societally dangerous at worst. Hurtado gives a number of examples of how Christianity was not something that was seen as a religion in the ancient context. These were beliefs that overrode ethnic ties to gods, nations or citizenships, and even common behavioral norms. The intent of Christians was to include people, any and all people, into a community of beliefs and practices that placed demands on those newly converted that would reshape what it meant for them to exist in ancient society.

Hurtado’s examples of this intentionally crafted counter-cultural behavior begins with the Christian emphasis on translocal, transethnic inclusivity as a part of what it means to be religiously affiliated with Christianity. Hurtado posits that there was no such idea as voluntary religious identity. A person’s religious identity was subsumed within their ethnic identity and more personally, the family ancestors. Beyond the expectation that a person worship their ancestral spirits or ethnic gods, there were expectations that a person would worship the gods of the locality in which they resided. Polytheism did not demand any form of exclusivity. Even Jews were caught in this perspective since it was their ethnicity that gave them the pass of being strangely against worshiping other gods than their own. Christians took their Jewish heritage and expanded it to into radical new territory, inviting any ethnicity to join but demanding they reject participation in any other form of religious practice or event. In such a way Christian created the distinctive idea of religious identity separate from ethnic or social identity.

The next major focus of Hurtado is on the bookish nature of Christianity. The early Christians were prolific compared the ancient people around them. Their works of literature and their religious letters were far larger than anything except the most celebrated ancient texts. Christians were dedicated to teaching one another through the written word as read in the communal meetings. Christians didn’t just distinguish themselves from groups in the ancient world by their content alone, they also separated themselves from the surrounding cultural and society by the form of their bookishness. They began to use the codex bookform in much higher frequency, in fact seeming to prefer this looked-down-upon bookform almost exclusively for the Scripture readings in the churches. As they focused on codex technology they also developed liturgical reading styles that were evident in the reading of the texts, such as abbreviations and emphases.

The last area of Christian distinctiveness Hurtado focuses on is the social behaviors of Christians. Christian groups put considerable effort into creating language and concepts that reshaped the behavioral life of the new convert. The particular areas of this is seen in the honor and dignity given to infants and children, a rejection of violence as entertainment, and strict sexual behavior, specifically expected of males. Pagan religion did not concern itself with the person’s ethical life but was focused on the rituals and practices expected to be adhered to because of traditions, ethnicity, and locality. Christian obsession with the lives of their participants was distinct and unusual.

My personal take away from this book is the unbelievable willingness for early Christians to purposefully craft a way of communal life that stood in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of the Greco-Roman world. They were radically inclusive in their invitation to any and all peoples, but at the same time this radical inclusivity was meant with a radically exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves from Jews who did not follow King Jesus and pagans. How might Christians in this contemporary period learn from the first few centuries how to be as clear about the boundaries of Christian identity, yet still lovingly offer to never withhold entrance into that communal identity?

I think particularly of the sexual issues plaguing American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Might Christians learn against to make unbelievably strict, and even “immoral” to the American society, demands on the sexual behavior of those who desire to participate in our communities of faith? Christians must again begin to craft purposefully insider language that will seem strange and distinct from those outside of the Christianity. The culture of America must become unpalatable for Christian identity to reside within, though we may live beside it in a way that condemns it by our own loving and holy behavior.

I easily recommend reading Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods for the education of the early churches found in it, but I highly encourage reading this for the conviction it brings about in the Christian reader. May we honor this tradition of inclusive exclusivity as essential to Christian identity. Even more than honor, may we begin to live it again.