Essay / Misc.

The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant (Book Review)

Michael Gorman’s new book, “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement,” is a big-picture account of the work of Christ as a covenantal reality. The movement begins with the biblical interweaving of (new) covenant language and accounts of Christ’s death and resurrection, expanding to incorporate a host of other themes that properly relate to or build from the intersection of those two topics. In his words,

Christ’s death effected the new covenant, meaning specifically the creation of a covenant community of forgiven and reconciled disciples, inhabited and empowered by the Spirit to embody a new-covenant spirituality of cruciform loyalty to God and love for others, thereby peaceably participating in the life of God and in God’s forgiving, reconciling, and covenanting mission to the world. (p. 75)

There are several distinctives to this approach. First, Gorman consistently adopts the biblical preference for speaking about the results of atonement, rather than precisely how this atonement occurs through Christ’s death (p. 210). While admitting that the question of mechanics—how this works—is valid and important, Gorman pushes us to keep to the pattern of Scripture, dwelling primarily on effects rather than means. The result is an expansive vision of Christ’s work, bound up with ethics, politics and a host of similar (this-worldly) concerns. Gorman’s work in this regard is excellent, and involves thoughtful interaction with recent Anabaptist scholarship on the atonement.

Second, by drawing on the theme of covenant, Gorman calls our attention to a massive trajectory within Scripture we might tend to overlook when it comes to our thinking about atonement. After all, at the last supper, Jesus told his disciples: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20)—this is a statement worth pondering at depth in relation to the full biblical theology of the covenant.

Finally, Gorman accomplishes all this while seeking to honor the integrity and insights of other perspectives on the work of Christ, offering a synthetic or comprehensive account. Regardless of whether the covenant proves to be the single over-arching theme Gorman finds it to be, the way he seeks to be appropriately inclusive with regard to a host of theories is quite helpful.

My primary concern with the book is that in one particularly important regard it lacks the depth which corresponds to its breadth: so far as I can tell, it leaves the reader, or future scholars, to develop an account of the meaning of the word “covenant.” At a key point in his argument, Gorman asks: “Why should we speak at all about ‘participation’ in Jesus’ death? Wouldn’t a word like ‘imitation’ (of his death) suffice?” (p. 78). We could ask a similar question regarding covenant: why should we speak at all about the “covenant” in speaking about Jesus’ death? Wouldn’t terms such as “relational,” “community” or “kingdom” suffice equally well?

The question is significant, for without a rich understanding of this key term “covenant”, its relation to a host of concepts (“covenant promise,” “covenant people,” “covenant relationship,” etc.) becomes ambiguous and decorative. Gorman himself has a clear understanding of the word, but I am not confident that the reader will have the proper resources by means of which to think fully about the term. What does it mean for God to make covenants, and freely enter them? What is the connection between blood or sacrifice and covenant? How are they different from relationships generally? Are they simply promises? What is the difference between a community and a covenantal community? Are there different interpretations of the term within scholarship? Does the term have a range of meaning throughout Scripture? I found questions such as these consistently impeding my appreciation of Gorman’s otherwise very helpful work, and I look forward to his own development of this concept (and the work of others in that regard), to help me understand the meaning of Christ’s work as a distinctly covenantal one.

My hunch is that this lack of development is related to the need to honor not merely the results or effects of Christ’s work, but its mechanics. Our understandings of the way or the means by which something happens, and our understanding of the effects or results of that same action, are bound together deeply. The biblical emphasis may well be on the results of Christ’s work. But it is only by our delving into the reality of this work as a covenantal work on the part of the God who makes and enters covenants that we will properly understand the many effects of this work and the ways in which they bear upon a host of this- and other-worldly concerns. The mechanics of covenants, particularly as God understands and makes them, are key to appreciating their many implications.

*Note: at a conference last year I had the opportunity to talk with Michael, and found him to be a delightful conversation partner. While my critique still stands, and I wish he had developed his understanding of “covenant” throughout the book, he expressed reservation about the attempt to explain what Scripture leaves unexplained, preferring rather to follow the path of Scripture, unfolding the thought-pattern(s) as the biblical authors weave the cross and covenant together. This combined with the ambiguities of the many compelling and competing ways of defining covenants, left him reticent to delve into this material in the book.

My response is two-fold: first, this is a compelling reason that is both laudatory and explains a good deal about the book. We must take our bearings from Scripture, and must err on the side of following where it leads. Second, and this is the theologian in me speaking, I still find myself unable to distinguish as strongly as Gorman does between what Scripture says, and how it thinks—and it is our interaction with the underlying patterns of thought and premises of Scripture, such as its understanding of the meaning and significance of covenants, which decisively shape our understanding of what it means when it weaves together the cross and the covenant. Though Scripture may not define realities such as covenants, marriage, the two natures of Christ, or the Trinity, it presupposes these realities, and delving into the nature of these realities is precisely what makes so powerful the exposition of those same realities in Scripture.

Share this essay [social_share/]