top of page

On What Counts as a Theory of the Atonement

Updated: Nov 27

Atonement is a central concept in Christian theology. Theories about the atonement--what it is, how it works--abound. Below is a long review of a book purporting to be a book about the atonement, which, I argue, is not actually about the atonement. It was commissioned by a journal, but I waited too long to write it, and the journal (understandably) declined to publish it. So I publish it here instead.

Michael J. Gorman The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014). Xii + 277 pp. Paperback.

The purpose of this book is to develop a (not so) new model of the atonement, a model which focuses on the way in which Jesus’ death inaugurates a new covenant between God and his people, a covenant in which life is to be lived in a “cruciform” way. Gorman sees his own model as compatible with a variety of other models of the atonement. In defending his own model, then, Gorman does not seek to supplant these others, but to shift the focus from the “mechanics” of how atonement is supposed to work, to the “purpose” of the atonement, or in other words, to shift focus from the “penultimate” to the “ultimate” purpose of the atonement (p.2). As a work of biblical exegesis and reflection on what Christ’s death means for us as we seek to live out a fully cruciform life in our local communities, in the Church, and in the world, Gorman’s book is a wise and inspiring guide. But I have some concerns about its success as a work of atonement theology.

In order to get at these concerns, it will be helpful to consider, at a meta-theoretical level, the idea of a model in general and a model of the atonement in particular. Here I loosely follow Avery Cardinal Dulles’ reflections on theological models in Models of the Church (New York: Image, 2002), p.15-21. A model stands in a relationship to something else, namely, that of which it is the model. Theoretical models, whether constructed in physics or theology or any other discipline, are designed to help us see something about the reality they model. If they are good models, they really do help see the reality. This basic fact about models implies, of course, that we have a clear enough vision of the reality behind the model, so that we can have some degree of confidence that the model really is a model of that reality. But any reality that we can see very well on our own does not need to be modeled. Thus, the basic fact about models, that they help us see some reality, also implies that we have sufficiently unclear vision of the reality modeled, vision which is supplemented by the model, if the model is a good one.

I stress here the relative clarity or unclarity of our vision in order to emphasize that the problem which models are meant to address is not the unintelligibility of the realities they’re getting at, but the deficiency of our own abilities to get at the realities directly. Model-building thus invites one sort of pluralism—a pluralism Gorman embraces—where several models are held to be helpful or valid insofar as each is taken to help us see some aspect or nuance of the reality it models, which the others don’t help us see.

Gorman employs the method of model-building. His model is new in the sense that the “Covenant Model” which Gorman develops and defends is a novel addition to the ever-growing list of models of the atonement; but the model is not so new in the sense that it is to be found, Gorman argues, in the New Testament itself. Here is his concise summary of the model he proposes:

The purpose of Jesus’ death was to effect, or give birth to, the new covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak and servant-love for all (cruciform love), and peacemaking (cruciform hope) (p.203, italics Gorman’s).

If we want to know what about this particular sentence is supposed to make it a model of the atonement, rather than a model of something else or not a model at all, we should look to the first five words: The purpose of Jesus’ death was…Something is a model of the atonement, by Gorman’s lights, just in case it is offered as a completion of that sentence. Thus, if you prefer the Christus Victor model, you’d say the purpose of Jesus’ death was to win victory over sin and death. If you prefer a Sacrificial model, you’d say the purpose of Jesus’ death was to make satisfaction to God for the sins of humanity. If you prefer the Penal model, you’d say the purpose of Jesus’ death was to suffer punishment in our stead. And so on. Generalizing from Gorman’s framework, if something is meant to complete the sentence, “The purpose of Jesus’ death was…” then it is or is part of a model of the atonement.

So if something is a model of the atonement just in case it is offered as a completion of that sentence, what is the reality that is the atonement, which the models are supposed to help us see better? The answer Gorman offers here is the death of Jesus. There is this mysterious thing, the death of the God-Man, and we want to understand and love it better. So we do some theology and try to arrive at some account or accounts of what it means. By Gorman’s lights, the most fruitful way to proceed here is to try to identify the purpose of this event. So according to Gorman’s model we try to understand the reality of the atonement by understanding the purpose of the atonement. In Gorman’s own preferred model, we have the reality, the death of Jesus, and the purpose of this reality, birthing the new covenant. Therefore whatever belongs in an adequate elaboration of what “birthing the new covenant” means (including elaboration of what “new covenant” itself means), thereby belongs in Gorman’s preferred model of the atonement, that is, it all belongs to atonement theology. Indeed, it is hard to think of many theological topics which do not end up being part of atonement theology, on Gorman’s view, as Gorman himself recognizes and considers a virtue of his own view (p.209).

I’ve tried to be very precise about all this, perhaps to the point of tedium, because I need to make it clear why I think Gorman is mistaken, both about the precise character of the reality which atonement models try to model, and about what a model must offer if it is to be a model of the atonement. Let me explain. Obviously Jesus’ death is the atonement, but it is not the atonement simply as the death of Jesus. It takes on the character of atonement only when understood along with those for whom Jesus makes atonement, or for whose sins Jesus atones. So the atonement properly speaking is not Jesus’ death but Jesus’ death for us, just as a temple sacrifice is not the death of an animal but the death of an animal for the people of Israel. Any model of the atonement is therefore supposed to be getting at the reality that is Jesus’ death for us, and not Jesus’ death as such.

If Jesus’ death for us is the reality, or proper subject matter, of a model of the atonement, what does some bit of theologizing need in order to count, formally speaking, as a model of the atonement (rather than a model of something else or no model at all)? On Gorman’s view it needs to be a statement of the purpose of the atonement, and can eschew the ‘how’ or ‘mechanics’ of atonement. Another way to put this is that Gorman thinks something can be a model of the atonement just by being a description of what the atonement achieves, with no description at all of how it achieves this. And since he thinks that the atonement properly speaking is simply the death of Christ, Gorman therefore thinks that something can be a model of the atonement just by being a description of what the death of Jesus achieves, with no description of how it achieves this, or even any special focus on who needed atonement, why it was needed (or desired?), or why or how Jesus’ death is the sort of thing that can be an atonement and can be the atonement that is needed.

Gorman’s way of thinking about what atonement is (Jesus’ death) and what counts as a model of atonement (the purpose of that death) simultaneously leaves too much out and packs too much in. It leaves out the traditional questions that animate atonement theology, and it packs in almost all of theology. Consider a metaphor he himself offers in favor of his own approach:

[S]ome discussions of the atonement may be compared to arguments over which type of delivery is best in dealing with a difficult birth situation—forceps, venthouse (suction), C-section, or whatever—when the point is that each of them effects the birth of a child (p.3)

Other models of the atonement are like the types of deliveries, and Gorman’s model is supposed to be like the birth of a child. Since the birth of a child is obviously more important than a technique for delivering a child, Gorman’s atonement model is supposed to have a systematic advantage over any additional models, however valid they may be. But let’s think about this metaphor: it is no problem at all that only some specialists both really care and really know a lot about the different delivery methods. These methods are for the specialists to know and know-how to practice, so that the specialists can deliver healthy babies. These different methods also matter to non-specialists, but not as information to be learned; instead, they matter as possible routes to healthy birth. But as for the birth itself, of course everyone, specialists and non-specialists alike, should care about it. The delivering physician does not care about the baby the way the parents do, I grant; but every medical action of the doctor during delivery is teleologically ordered to the healthy birth of the baby, and in this very robust sense the doctor is obviously acting for the baby’s good. But the surpassing value of the baby over the methods of its delivery does not reduce but elevates the importance of these methods; it’s so important to get things right about delivering babies precisely because of how valuable babies are.

Now there is a field of specialized knowledge about Jesus’s death for us, just as there is a field of specialized knowledge about how to deliver a baby safely. The theological specialization offers various answers to questions such as these: why did Jesus die for us? Why did he need to die for us? How does his death meet that need? Theologians, and in particular specialists in atonement theology, are the sorts of people who consider questions like these in depth, and explore their connection to other aspects of theology. The answers the specialists give to these sorts of questions naturally ramify into other areas of theology, and in reflecting on these ramifications the specialists acknowledge that atonement theology is not an end in itself. One of the ends to which traditional atonement theology is ordered is, of course, theological understanding of the new covenant between God and his people, a new covenant inaugurated, inter alia, by Jesus’ death for us. But it is a mistake to treat all of the ends of the atonement as the subject matter of atonement theology. This would be as strange as taking pediatrics to be the proper subject matter of obstetrics.

I’m afraid that Gorman has done just this in his book. The real subject matter of the book is the normative shape new covenant life should take, in light of the fact that by Christ’s atoning death God established a new covenant. That this shape of new covenant life takes much of its character from Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross—its “cruciform” character (chs.4-7), is, of course, correct. That the cruciform shape of new covenant life is marked chiefly by faith (ch.4), love (ch.5), and hope (chs.6-7) is equally correct. In his deep exegesis and reflection on the way in which a specifically biblical understanding of how the faith, hope, and love Christians ought to practice takes it character from Christ, Gorman is erudite and edifying. But I’m not convinced that he has offered an alternative to other atonement theologies, because I’m not convinced he has fairly carved out the subject matter of atonement theology. When he writes that “our theology of Jesus’ death becomes inseparable from our ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, missiology, and even politics (p.209),” I’m sure many theologians would heartily agree, as do I; but in Gorman these all seem to be inseparable from a theology of Jesus’ death in the precise sense that they are identical to it, and this, I think, leaves the theology of Jesus’ death murky, not illuminated.

Francisco de Zubaran, Agnus Dei

bottom of page