Atonement and Creation by Rev Keith Innes

Keith Innes

Michael J. Gorman has changed the way I look at Christ’s saving work on the cross. His book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not-So) New Model of the Atonement [1] proposes that the New Covenant should be seen as the essential way of viewing the salvation of the world. The New Covenant, of course, was prophesied by Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more [2].

Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand.

Jesus owned this prophecy at the Last Supper with his disciples, when he said: ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood…’ [3]

Christians over the centuries have worked out a number of theories to try to define how the Cross (really shorthand for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ) can save us. Many on the evangelical wing of the church think in terms of substitution – Jesus took my place, took away my sins and made my peace with God. I profoundly believe this for myself, and it is taught in the New Testament. But the New Testament also contains other ways of thinking about the Cross – for example, as Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death, or his moral example of self-sacrifice in obedience to the Father’s will. We would be presumptuous to think that any of these models could enable us fully to understand something so mysterious and stupendous.

Enter Gorman’s New Covenant model, which does not concentrate so much on the process of salvation as on its results. It is also consistent with each of the traditional models. But what bearing does it have on the theology of ecology? Let us retrace our steps. Suppose that our Christian life began with a faith in the substitution – perhaps penal substitution – of Jesus for us. Such a faith is meant to lead to a new life in Christ, with a new orientation, new aims and new desires. Environmental responsibility is just one aspect of responsible Christian living. And, since nobody can do everything, we could easily decide that ecological concern was best left to someone else. But if the Cross inaugurates the New Covenant – as it does – that makes everything different.

In the New Covenant a new relationship of human beings to God, to other people and to creation is born. Gorman shows how the New Covenant is a ‘covenant of peace’ (shalom in the Hebrew Bible). And in that covenant the true welfare of all created things is included.

‘Humanity’s reconciliation with, and within, the creation/environment is an integral part of shalom. Care for God’s creation is a manifestation of peace with God and with neighbour; it is an act of love toward both the creator and fellow creatures, as well as the creation. Justice and peace can truly flourish only when the entire creation in which humans participate is treated justly and peaceably.’[4]

Gorman cites texts such as Romans 8 and Colossians 1 as pointing to ‘the inclusion of the entire creation in the Pauline perception of shalom.’ [5] I found Gorman’s book transformative reading. I read it with thankfulness, and intend to run with it in my future thinking and praying.

Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. His notes “God, the Earth and Humanity in the Book of Micah” and “British and American attitudes to nature” are available on the JRI Briefings page of this website

Photo: Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand (R.M. Lickiss).

[1] Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2014

[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34. All bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition).

[3] Luke 22:20.

[4] Gorman, op. cit., page 194.

[5] Ibid., note 58.