Richard Beck of Experimental Theology has an interesting take on atonement theory in Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement. The dominant understanding of atonement theory in the west for the last 500 years (or more) has been Penal Substitutionary Atonement: the idea that Christ suffered and died to pay the penalty for our sins. The problem that many people have with PSA is that it makes God (the Father) an angry, wrathful God. As Beck puts it,
Consequently, the leading edge of the gospel proclamation is The Big Angry Guy in the Sky. Salvation is being rescued from That Guy.
Beck notes that N. T. Wright and similar scholars identify the underlying framework in the New Testament as the covenant, not the penal system, and fleshes out this understanding:
YHWH and Israel form a covenant with God’s plan being to bless the world through Israel. But Israel cannot keep her end of the deal, bringing upon herself all the punishments that befall those who break covenants in the ancient Semitic mind. Israel broke her promise with the result, per the covenantal agreement, being exile. And at that point God’s plan to bless the world through Israel gets stuck.
So God enters history in Jesus to be Israel’s representative, Israel’s Messiah. And as a faithful or the faithful Israelite Jesus takes up the covenantal burden–both in fulfilling the Torah and in bearing Israel’s punishment in breaking the covenant. In Jesus God does what Israel could not do, stepping in to help Israel fulfill her side of the covenant, which, per ancient Semitic covenantal logic, does include punishments for breaking promises. In all this Jesus substitutes himself for Israel. Jesus protects Israel from herself, carries a burden she cannot carry, takes on her exile so that she can be set free.
Now the covenant referenced above looks to be the Mosaic covenant made at Sinai. But reading this reminded me of the scene in Gen 15, in which God makes a covenant with Abram:
He then said to him: I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession. “Lord GOD,” he asked, “how will I know that I will possess it?” He answered him: Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. He brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram scared them away. . . . When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces.
Until you know the cultural context, this is just a very bizarre scene: cut up animals? floating torch? Say what?
Here’s the key: in the ancient Near East, a standard way of sealing an agreement was to take some number of animals, cut them in half, make a sort of aisle with the two halves, and have both parties to the agreement walk down that aisle as they swore agreement. Basically, this is an elaborate, bloody version of “cross my heart and hope to die:” If I violate my oath to you, may I be killed and torn to pieces just like these animals were. There’s historical and archaeological evidence for this practice in the context of various treaties.
Once I knew this, my imagination was immediately captured by the fact that Abram doesn’t walk between the pieces! God binds Godself to the covenant without a reciprocal ritual binding from Abram. That struck me as a powerful image of God’s lavish, generous, and unconditional love for us.
So when I think about Jesus Christ pitching in to help out with our side of the covenant… well, it just seems a natural extension of God’s approach to this covenant in the first place.