A (Not So) New Model for the Atonement

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.

29 Responses to “A (Not So) New Model for the Atonement”

  1. Scott Kohler says:

    This sounds great, Mike. Looking forward to hearing more. Do you see the “new covenant” category as being able to encompass all three standard models? In terms of these passages, the synoptic passages are easy to relate to the “satisfaction-substitution-penal” model, with the reference to “my blood” and “forgiveness”; and Paul’s use is for the purpose of something like “moral influence,” showing the church what it looks like to live within the new covenant and be the new covenant people. Can you give any hint of the direction you might be going with New Covenant/Christus Victor? This last seems so much to emphasize the inbreaking of God’s power that it seems harder to bring into the kind of continuity that New Covenant usually brings to my mind… “Transformation, participation, re-creation” sound nicely integrative of Christian life and the atonement.

  2. MJG says:

    Hi, Scott,

    I thought you were on vacation!

    I’m going to be less focused on drawing the other three models in (at least in this paper) and more focused on a constructive proposal. But as I have argued elsewhere (and NTW agrees with me here), apocalyptic and covenantal (or salvation-history) theological models do not have to be mutually exclusive generally or in atonement theology particularly. New covenant suggests continuity and discontinuity.

  3. bruce hamill says:

    This looks very interesting. I’m hanging out to read it. My questions lie in how far it goes towards asking the how questions. How victory/liberation? How participation? How transformation? and to break the pattern, why in particular, violent death by mob-lynching and political/religious scapegoating (as opposed to other kinds of deaths)?

  4. Scott Kohler says:

    Vacation probably won’t stop me from occasional blog-visiting, etc., but unfortunately I got a phone call about a death in the church about ten minutes before we left the house. So, I got the family delivered to their destination, but I’ll now be a few days behind…

    I probably should have worded my question differently – I guess I was wondering mostly about some of the motifs that traditionally get emphasized within the other models rather than the models themselves. I suspect your proposal will still hit some of the same notes the others play, but in a new, participatory key? Any notes you see being deliberately downplayed or obscured because they are distracting? Daniel Kirk’s recent post on “sin, brokenness, and atonement” was interesting in this regard.

  5. Trey Palmisano says:

    Interested to see how you interpret at-one-ment in terms of those three talking points (i.e., how does oneness with God and our subsequent reconciliation imply participation, transformation, and re-creation). I have a feeling you’ll be drawing on your thesis for cruciformity since all three of these seem to play major roles in your Pauline understanding of the crucified life. Is that a correct assumption? If so, then this approach seems very integrative with your overall theological commitment.

  6. MJG says:


    I am going to take the fifth for a while for two reasons. First, the paper is not yet finished. Second, I don’t want to reveal my entire hand before the game begins (i.e., the symposium). Suffice it to say for now that the sacrificial and Christus Victor models deal primarily with the problem (sin and enslavement) and the mechanics of how the problem is addressed, but the NT’s theology of the atonement is much more focused on the problem solved. I will be teasing out five aspects of this problem-solved approach. And of course it will not be far from cruciformity and theosis.

    I need to take a peak at Daniel’s post. Thanks, Scott. Sorry your vacation is delayed.

    I will post the paper once the conference is over—late September. I may drop a few more excerpts before that.

    If you can get to Chicago, it should be a good symposium, and I am also giving two lectures on “Reimagining Justification” on Wednesday, Sept. 22 in the morning.

  7. Scott Kohler says:

    Thanks, Mike. I will hold onto my curiosity until you let us see the paper in a couple months!

    Here’s a quote from Jurgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (p.25-26) that seems pertinent:

    “(The Almighty) makes himself a partner in a covenant with his people. In this pathos, this feeling for the people which bears his name and upholds his honour in the world, the Almighty is himself ultimately affected by Israel’s experience, its acts, its sins and its sufferings. In the fellowship of his covenant with Israel, God becomes capable of suffering. His existence and the history of the people are linked together through the divine pathos. Creation, liberation, covenant, history and redemption spring from the pathos of God. This therefore has nothing to do with the passions of the moody, envious or heroic gods belonging to the mythical world of the sagas. Those gods are subject to destiny because of their passions. But the divine passion about which the Old Testament tells us is God’s freedom. It is the free relationship of passionate participation. The eternal God takes men and women seriously to the point of suffering with them in their struggles and of being wounded in his love because of their sins.”

  8. MJG says:

    Thank you, Scott.

  9. Rob Kashow says:

    Sounds great! Hopefully we will sample some more blurbs of this essay.

  10. MJG says:


    I can’t resist. More to come!

  11. mshedden says:

    Dr. Gorman,
    I know I am late to the game here but I was wondering if you might be addressing what is becoming known as the apocalyptic model in your paper? I am not sure anyone has written a comprehensive view of atonement for them but it would be interesting to hear your take on what Campbell, Gaventa, Harink, and others are working on that they this is different than the covenant model.

  12. Hey Mike,

    You said: “in the new covenant model the effect is best expressed in terms like transformation, participation, and re-creation.”

    I was wondering how you fit in the concept of forgiveness in your approach. It seems fundamental to the new covenant when Jesus says, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Is forgiveness just one benefit of the new covenant or something more?

  13. MJG says:


    I am friends with all the aforementioned and sympathetic to much of what they are doing. As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t see apocalyptic and (new)-covenantal as being in conflict. The apocalyptic model tends to stress the newness of God’s “invasion” in Christ, whereas anything with a word like covenant in it will naturally see a bit more continuity. But to me, once again, new covenant implies both continuity and discontinuity. Moreover, we find both in Paul, for instance and, I would argue, in Mark and Luke at least. For example, 2 Cor 5:11-21 sounds apocalyptic with the “new creation” and new epistemology, but then it ends in “becoming the righteousness of God,” which takes us back to chapters 3-4 and the new covenant language. The question may ultimately be not which is correct, but which receives priority.


    The word “forgiveness” is only in the Matthean account, though of course forgiveness is implied elsewhere. But it should make us wary of reducing the covenant to the forgiveness of sins. I would say that forgiveness is one (perhaps the initial) consequence of participating in the new covenant. As the prophets put it, God will forgive the people’s sins, but also write his law on their hearts, etc., and they will each and all be in right covenant relations.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Actually, a “New Covenant” theology has been around for several years. (I first came across it about ten years ago.) It’s broader than a theory of atonement (developed more in contrast to progressive dispensational and covenant theologies), but it certainly includes a perspective on atonement. See http://newcovenanttheology.org/.

  15. MJG says:


    Thanks for this link. I’ve looked at a few things. This small “movement” (which is not really a movement of serious academic theology) is doing something quite different from what I am proposing. We overlap fundamentally in language only.

  16. [...] Michael J. Gorman previews a paper that he is writing on a “not so new model” of the [...]

  17. Michael says:


    So what is the precise origin of the imagery in the verses you cite above?

    To be sure, blood/lamb/sacrificial imagery imagery in the NT is multivalent, and could signify multiple things given the multiple uses in the Hebrew Bible.

    However, why would the “[New] Covenant in blood” language be drawing on “blood for atonement” imagery (e.g. Lev 16, 17) rather than “blood for covenant ratification” imagery (e.g. Exod 24:6-80?

  18. MJG says:


    Great question. Two responses. First of all, like many others I am using the term “model of the atonement” as a generic reference to models or theories of understanding the salvific death of Christ, without committing to a particular understanding of that death (e.g., a substitutionary or expiatory sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins). Christus Victor and moral influence models, for instance, do not really understand Christ’s death as an atonement (atoning sacrifice), but they are still called models of the atonement.

    Second, having said that, I think it is likely that the references to blood in the accounts of the Last Supper implicitly (or explicitly in Matthew) link the death of Jesus to forgiveness of sins and therefore to the atoning sacrifices of Lev 16 (and much of 4:1-6:7). This does not rule out an echo of the (much less central) covenant-renewal blood in Exod 24. In fact, it may well be that both are in view.

  19. In a round-about way this fits with the present discussion. I just wrote an obscenely long review of your book “Inhabiting the Cruciform God”:

    I would love to hear your response. http://ahabhuman.blogspot.com/2010/08/ecumenical-account-of-pauls-soteriology.html

    I am extremely fond of your description of your description of Jesus’ death as the “quintessential covenantal act.” How do you think your reading of the gospels can be helpful in further articulating Jesus’ death in those terms?

  20. MJG says:


    I’ve posted a comment on your review, for which I am grateful.

    About Jesus and covenant: I think that, according to the gospels, Jesus presents discipleship as the fulfillment of the covenant/new covenant ideal of the double obligation of love for God and love for neighbor. Both Jesus and the evangelists do this in all sorts of ways. I will post about John, just as an example, as soon as I get a chance.

  21. MJG,

    As you can tell, I loved “Inhabiting.” I think your argument about a “covenantal” view of atonement sweeping and I look forward to the paper where you flesh it out.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  22. Mark W. says:

    Try reading “Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises” by Scott Hahn. He thoroughly maps out all forms of covenants and forms of atonement in the Old Testament to Jesus’ new Covenant.

  23. MJG says:

    Mark W.,

    Thanks—will do tomorrow!


  24. ..just another "Mike" says:

    It seems the entrenched camps of penal theory and Christ-as-Victor theory tend to shrink the spectrum of atonement discourse into an either/or prop; either you have much faith as in the former camp, or you have much reason as in the latter. In the end, the authentic salvific status of a pending new heaven and new earth is, sadly, narrowed…

    I realize you are constructing a theological treatise proper; however, I am wondering, is it possible that a theological discourse paired with an ontological discourse via Scripture may, in a very real way, help reanimate the discussion about salvation, bridging the divide between reason and faith? Thus alongside Paul’s remembrance of the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11:25, one may position, or better juxtapose, Ephesians 2:10: “we are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning God has meant us to live it.” Both a Cartesian anxiety and a floundering Fideism is hedged against here, thereby giving us the stuff to know God without completely transcending God; Augustine and Aquinas both made the theological/ontological distinction between “knowledge” and “comprehension,” where the former was humanely possible and the latter was not.

  25. MJG says:


    I tend to spend most of my time and speech in the land of biblical rather than philosophical discourse, so I’m less prepared to comment on your second paragraph, though I support the general drift.

    You might like to read my (co-written) article on salvation in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, for some words that are congenial to yours, esp. about new heaven and earth.

    As for the two competing models you name, they each have the distinct disadvantage of focusing on the mechanics of atonement rather than its results, which is where I see the emphasis in the NT.

  26. Mike says:


    “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” True enough! This is where the topography of biblical faith and discourse must come sharply into focus. Though schematic philosophy/theology is forever and always trained in the periphery of the Westerner. In the end, I am not so sure we can put one lens down and pick the other one up so easily.. (And I think I was getting at that in my last comment by noting classical theology’s holistic distinction of knowledge/comprehension of God. But I guess such a notion has now fallen out of vogue?)

  27. Mirche says:

    If we understand the etymology of the word »atonement« as »unity« than how can we unite the New covenant theory with the New Testament prayer for holy unity from Joh. 17, 4, where our Lord is praying: »I have finished the work«? What was solved or finished?

    How than to understand John 12, 32–33 that our Lord Jesus »will draw all peoples« to Himself not befor his most significant death? What it means »to draw« all peoples?

  28. Josh Mueller says:

    You may want to check ot Jonathan Brink’s new book “Discovering the God Imagination” that overlaps with many of your observations. The main weakness of our traditional ways of looking at the atonement is the absence of the aspect of participation and also seeing the root problem as connected to either God’s justice that needs satisfaction or Satan’s power and grip that needs to be overcome, instead of locating the problem where both Paul and Jesus locate it: in the human body and heart, and our twisted way of thinking.

  29. [...] has just appeared in the 2011 issue of Ex Auditu. (For earlier discussion of it, see here and [...]

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