Interview with Dr. Michael Gorman Re: “New Covenant” Book (Part One)

Gorman DMBNCOnly a handful of months ago, Chris Skinner was kind enough to accept my invitation for him to co-blog with me here at Crux Sola. One of the reasons I approached Chris regarding this “merger” is that we both are interested in cruciform discipleship and we both hold our mentor Dr. Michael J. Gorman in the highest esteem as a teacher, scholar, and friend. When we heard about Gorman’s new book, we jumped at the chance to read The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and we enjoyed it so much we asked Gorman if he would answer some questions about the book.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, here is the official description.

In this groundbreaking book, Michael Gorman asks why there is no theory or model of the atonement called the “new-covenant” model, since this understanding of the atonement is likely the earliest in the Christian tradition, going back to Jesus himself. Gorman argues that most models of the atonement over-emphasize the penultimate purposes of Jesus’ death and the “mechanics” of the atonement, rather than its ultimate purpose: to create a transformed, Spirit-filled people of God. The New Testament’s various atonement metaphors are part of a remarkably coherent picture of Jesus’ death as that which brings about the new covenant (and thus the new community) promised by the prophets, which is also the covenant of peace. Gorman therefore proposes a new model of the atonement that is really not new at all-the new-covenant model. He argues that this is not merely an ancient model in need of rediscovery, but also a more comprehensive, integrated, participatory, communal, and missional model than any of the major models in the tradition. Life in this new covenant, Gorman argues, is a life of communal and individual participation in Jesus’ faithful, loving, peacemaking death. Written for both academics and church leaders, this book will challenge all who read it to re-think and re-articulate the meaning of Christ’s death for us.

Without further ado, here is the first part of our interview.

Crux Sola: We think this is a fresh and interesting approach to the atonement question. Has this been an approach/perspective that you have taken for a long time, or is this a more recent insight and development in your thought? Could you tell us a bit about your “big idea” and how you came to write this book?

 Gorman: This approach has been brewing for a long time, probably since Ph.D. work on Paul in the 1980s, and even my M.Div. work: I worked on Anselm and Barth on the atonement early on in my theological studies, as well as Gustaf Aulén, in addition to my study of New Testament theology. But the approach began to take concrete shape when I was invited to contribute a paper at the 2010 North Park symposium on the theological interpretation of Scripture that focused on atonement. The title of that paper, later published in Ex Auditu, was “Effecting the New Covenant: A (Not So) New, New Testament Model for the Atonement.”

For such a conference it was a long and rather wide-ranging paper, and I decided almost before finishing the paper that it needed to become a book. I then wrote and lectured pretty intensely on the various sub-parts of the subject over the next three years until I was ready to synthesize it all in late 2013. Of course, there are some aspects of the book that will be recognizable to anyone who has read my previous work, especially the “cruciformity” and “participation” themes. But this book is not just about cruciformity and certainly not just about Paul; it is making a broad claim about the major thrust of the New Testament and, indeed, about what the focus of Christian theology about the death of Jesus ought to be.

My “big idea” is that most of the models of the atonement deal with penultimate rather than the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death, which is the formation of a transformed, Spirit-filled, peacemaking, missional people of the new covenant. My hope (perhaps a bit ambitious!) is that this book can spark the kind of revolution in thinking about the atonement that Aulén’s Christus Victor did a century ago.

Crux Sola: In the book you argue that a focus on the penultimate effects of the atonement (e.g. forgiveness of sins) rather than the ultimate effect (creating a new people who will live out a new covenant) has distorted our understanding of the atonement. Can you discuss how this focus has led to a distorted reading of the Gospels and Acts in particular?

Gorman: It’s actually probably adversely affected the reading of Paul even more than the Gospels and Acts, but the main effect on the interpretation of the Gospels and Acts has been to under-estimate the significance of Jesus’ ministry and early Christian preaching/teaching for the formation of a faithful and loving missional community. Jesus’ mission is sometimes seen primarily or even exclusively as benefiting me with healing in the present and escape from hell in the future, with a bit of teaching thrown in to help me get through this life; early Christian preaching in Acts, not to mention Paul letters, is seen as focused on the same things. It’s all about what Jesus has done and will do for me/us (and very little “us”). Of course the death of Jesus is for our benefit, but it is also revelatory of what it means to be a community of disciples, the light of the world and salt of the earth. The gospels and Acts are about forming a culture, as Kavin Rowe says about Acts.

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I have no interest in minimizing the importance of forgiveness and other traditional aspects of the NT’s teaching on atonement. I simply want us to recognize the rest of the story, so to speak. As I like to say, the cross is not only the source of our salvation but also the shape of our salvation. 

In addition, especially with respect to the Gospels and Acts, we need to see the death of Jesus in continuity with the life and teachings of Jesus. His act of forgiveness on the cross, for instance, is also a summons to forgiveness and reconciliation, which in turn is precisely what he taught and practiced.

Crux Sola: It has been common in the recent history of NT interpretation to see Jesus and Paul as fundamentally opposed to one another, but you find many points of contact. Would you briefly discuss your understanding of the teachings of Jesus and Paul on discipleship with specific emphasis on how the two cohere?

Gorman: While it’s true that the discontinuity has often been stressed, there has been some recent movement by scholars writing for scholars and by scholars writing for a more general audience (such as Daniel Kirk) to bridge the gap. I would situate my own approach in the same vein as that of Bonhoeffer in his (Cost of) Discipleship; for him the cross is the lens for interpreting the overall teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. My starting point for the gospels is Jesus’ own teaching, in all four gospels, about the consequences of his upcoming death for discipleship. This teaching is especially prominent in what I call the passion prediction-summonses, but it is not limited to those synoptic texts. We find it also in the farewell discourses in John and in the actual passion narratives, especially in the synoptics. In such passages we find Jesus calling his disciples to share in his death (for instance, drinking his cup, or being baptized with his baptism) by doing cruciform acts of faithfulness even to the point of suffering and death, as well as practical love for the weak and poor, and non-domineering service to others. Discipleship, then, is more than “following” Jesus even for Jesus as narrated in the gospels. It is about a deep and comprehensive sharing in the complex reality of his death.

We find these same kinds of concerns, in a different but still similar idiom of participation that produces ethical likeness, throughout Paul’s letters, and the participatory element is even more pronounced in Paul. Cruciformity is not mere imitation of Christ but dying and rising with him, living in him, etc. This is probably the least controversial part of the book. (No one argues against cruciformity in Paul.)

We also find in both Jesus (as suggested above) and Paul a strong emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation. With a number of other recent scholars, I would include Colossians and Ephesians among the genuine Pauline letters, and if that is right, the connecting theme of forgiveness and reconciliation is particularly strong.

In addition to these common elements, we find in both Jesus (i.e., the remembered, narrated Jesus of the canonical gospels) and Paul an emphasis on the communal reality of this life; neither one addresses merely individuals but calls the community of disciples/participants, as the people of the new covenant, to Spirit-empowered cruciform faithfulness and love.

Crux Sola: Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon! (And buy the book!)