I am working on a paper to give at the the North Park symposium on the theological interpretation of Scripture next month. The theme of the symposium is “atonement.” Here are a few lines from the paper, which is entitled “Effecting The New Covenant: A (Not So) New, New Testament Model for the Atonement”:
According to all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ own interpretation of his death on the night before he died was about effecting a (new) covenant:
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:23-24)
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt 26:27-28)
And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:20)
Moreover, in the only account of the Last Supper outside the Gospels, Paul passes on the same kinds of words, indicating that both the Last Supper and its act of remembrance, the Lord’s Supper, narrate an interpretation of Jesus’ death centered on the establishment of a new covenant:
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:25)
So why is there no theory or model of the atonement called “new covenant”?
Not merely the lack of covenantal language in the “names” of the standard theories of the atonement (“satisfaction” or “substitution” or “penal”, “Christus victor,” “moral influence”), but also, more broadly, the near absence of such language from standard expositions of their content, might suggest that the tradition is blatantly ignoring the interpretation of Jesus himself as well as a very early, pre-Pauline Christian tradition rooted in Jesus’ own interpretation. It is likely that more time has been spent in recent decades discussing the tradition history of the two forms of this tradition—the Markan/Matthean, on the one hand, and the Pauline/Lukan, on the other—than their common theological content and its theological significance.
In this essay, therefore, I aim in a modest way to help in correcting this problem by proposing a new model of the atonement that is really not new at all—the new covenant model. In fact, this model may legitimately lay claim to being the oldest model of the atonement in the Christian tradition, going back to Jesus, the earliest churches, and Paul. I will argue that this not merely a more comprehensive model, but also, and more importantly, a more integrative and integrated model than any of the major models in the tradition.
The fundamental problem with existing models of the atonement is not that they are inaccurate—though some may have problems—but that they are inadequate. Each one is constructed as if part of an atomistic theological non-system in which various key elements are not inherently connected to one another. Most existing models (whether traditional or more recent ones) of the atonement are not integrative; they are narrow and do not naturally pull other aspects of theology into their orbit.
The result is the separation of atonement theology from ethics, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology.
We may summarize a model of the atonement in terms of its understanding of the fundamental effect of the cross on humanity. Whereas in the satisfaction-substitution-penal model the effect is propitiation, expiation, and/or forgiveness, in the Christus Victor model the effect is victory and liberation, and in the “moral influence” model the effect is inspiration, in the new covenant model the effect is best expressed in terms like transformation, participation, and re-creation.