Archive for June 11th, 2014

More from “The Death of the Messiah…”

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

As previously noted, my new book, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement, should be available by the end of the month (by June 30) from Cascade/Wipf and Stock. Here is another excerpt, this time from chapter 1, “The Promise of the New Covenant”:

The Need for a New, More Comprehensive Model
There are at least four major problems with the traditional models of the atonement as a group. We will consider each of these problems briefly.

• The first problem is the isolationist, or sectarian, character of the models. Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole (or at least the most important) story and requires the exclusion (or at least the marginalization) of other versions of the story. In sympathy with certain postmodern complaints about the very idea of a doctrine of the atonement, Kevin Vanhoozer says [in “Atonement in Postmodernity], “The problem is that theologies of the atonement seem unable to articulate a theory that explains the saving significance of Jesus’ death without betraying the rich testimonies to the event of his death.” Only rarely, as in the case of Colin Gunton (The Actuality of the Atonement), does a theologian try to appropriate and integrate various traditional models.

• The second problem derives from the first: the atomistic, or nonintegrative, character of the traditional models. They do not naturally pull other aspects of theology into their orbit. “Atonement,” however interpreted, often stands apart, separated from ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. In some cases atonement becomes a narrow branch of theology that is almost irrelevant to the actual life of Christian individuals and communities.

• The third problem is individualism. The traditional models have a nearly exclusive focus on the individual, rather than on both the individual and the community, as the beneficiary of the atonement. Scot McKnight (in A Community Called Atonement) and others have, of course, also recognized and begun addressing this problem.

• The fourth problem we might call “under-achievement.” That is, the models do not do enough. We may summarize a model of the atonement in terms of its understanding of the fundamental effect of the cross on a person (or on humanity). In the satisfaction-substitution-penal model(s) 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. As I suggested in the Introduction to this book, the under-achieving character of these models means that, on the whole, they focus on the penultimate rather than the ultimate purpose(s) of Jesus’ death. In the new-covenant model I am proposing, the purpose (and actual effect) of Jesus’ death is all of the above and more, but that effect is best expressed, not in the rather narrow terms of the traditional models, but in more comprehensive and integrative terms like transformation, participation, and renewal or re-creation. The inclusion of terms like these in a discussion of atonement will seem odd to some readers, but I will introduce them because they capture the spirit of the new covenant promised by the prophets and inaugurated by Jesus’ death. It is precisely certain elements of the promised new covenant (which we will consider in the next two chapters), such as the coming of the Spirit and empowerment to fulfill the law, that are generally not considered to be aspects of atonement per se in traditional theories. This is, in part at least, why the traditional theories fall short of a fully biblical interpretation of the atonement.