by Marit Trelstad
In theology, atonement is defined as reconciliation with God and amelioration of sin or wrongdoing. In historical theology, atonement models have been based on multiple foundations including the incarnation, the crucifixion of Christ and God’s love as moral example. This article grounds atonement in the concept of the covenantal nature and love of God. Thus, this atonement theory begins in the doctrine of God rather than the cross event. Atonement and reconciliation with God are not achieved solely through penal substitution, moral influence or a cosmic battle of good and evil – but rather through God’s nature and will to love. God’s unswerving steadfastness is illustrated best by the covenant tradition in the Bible – of God continuously offering God’s self in relationships, promising to accompany humanity over and over again. The theological understanding of covenant informs our graceful empowerment of individuality even within covenant interrelation. Indeed, our atoning relationship with God offers a vision of wholeness and beauty; it provides possibilities for all becoming. Additionally, God’s continuous atonement with the world offers a perpetual, persistent and contextual vision of love and justice to each moment and in this way illustrates the simultaneous presence and goal of the Reign or Kingdom of God to which Jesus witnessed. This vision forms the basis for social solidarity and diversity held together within the covenantal grace of God.
We may suspect that we can fall out of relationship or that being in relationship is based on acceptance or choice, but in a process theology this is not so. Divine grace is neither finite nor contingent. Humankind and all of creation are forever in relation to God and God is forever in relationship with the world. This relationship provides the foundation for who we are and who God is – in continuous, interrelated development.
Christian existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel also viewed relationships with God and other humans as providing the fundamental basis for reality. Reality, he wrote in “Being and Having,” is best described as “being-in-society” (as opposed to Jean Paul Sartre’s “being-in-itself”). Marcel wrote that love, grounded in God, is “the essential ontological datum.” And if God is the fundamental relationship from which we live, move and have our being, then this covenant shapes our being and existence. With Marcel, as with process theology, all ontology or being is rooted in our relationships with God and each other. It is relationship all the way down.
An emphasis on God’s relationality and the priority of God’s grace is hardly the exclusive stomping ground of process thought. Karl Barth wrote that God’s “primal decision” is an act of free love, “God’s eternal election of grace” through Christ. God’s freedom, for Barth, is witnessed to by God’s sovereign choice to elect, to extend grace and love to creation – to move, through Christ, to humanity. In a process worldview, however, where there is no posited beginning or end of time, this relationship is simply the way things have been, are, and will be.
In “Process and Reality,” Alfred North Whitehead defines the love of God in terms of God’s constant commitment and offering of creative possibility to the world. God’s action and love toward creation always precedes humanity’s response and is neither controlling nor dependent on the reception or moral worthiness of people. Correspondingly, there is freedom in each moment for humanity and creation to respond and offer their creativity back to God. The relationship between God and humanity is one of cooperative creativity. God is constantly giving and receiving from the world, regardless of its decisions. According to Whitehead, this is a different conception of divine love than is offered by much of Western philosophy and theology. Concerning love, Whitehead writes, “It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love. … Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved.”
By examining the history of the covenant concept in Protestant theology, one witnesses a persistent strand of theological emphasis that can provide a meeting ground for many disparate theologies. Covenant or Federal theology has been a key emphasis within Reformed systematic theology since the beginning, particularly within the Zürich theologians, Bullinger and Zwingli, who centered Christian life on the concept of covenant (See “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” by Geerhardus Vos). Later, covenant would become a key locus for Reformed systematic theology. Wesleyan theology has also emphasized the centrality of the concept of covenant, particularly for pietism, through liturgical practices, such as John Wesley’s Covenant Service that was designed for deepening one’s relationship with God.
Reformed Covenant theologies follow a couple primary trajectories. There has been a tradition in covenant theology, represented well by 17th century Reformed traditions in England (found in the writing of Thomas Blake, John Ball and Francis Roberts as well as the work of the Westminster Assembly such as the Westminster Confession), in which covenant theology refers to multiple, successive covenants made between God and humanity in the Bible. They refer, for example, to the covenants forged with humanity in paradise, with Israel through Moses, and with Abraham, David and Jesus. Most covenant theologies, however, unify these multiple covenants under two or three major categories. All biblical covenants are seen under the categories of the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Many simply have explicated God’s covenant of grace and covenant of works. Essentially, one can simply state that the covenant of works is the pre-lapsarian covenant with Adam and Eve, specifying the rules by which the covenant of God is maintained: “Do this and live.” But, after the fall, humans are unable to maintain the commands of God so God offers a covenant of grace. Karl Barth collapsed all discussion of covenant into a single covenant of grace. In Barth’s work, God’s covenant with humanity is viewed strictly through the lens of Christology and God’s sovereign decision to love precedes all human work.
Nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Heinrich Heppe proposed, at one point, that the doctrine of the covenant found its first systematic basis in German-Protestantism emerging from tradition of Phillip Melanchthon. As a Lutheran theologian who desires to adopt a form of covenant theology, I find this idea appealing though it appears to be relatively unsubstantiated. Luther himself avoided the term “covenant” for fear that it would evoke the Nominalist via moderna view of that seemed to imply that human good works were a precondition for justification. He chose the word “promises” instead. In discussing the work of Heppe, Geerhardus Vos stated Lutherans tended to collapse all discussion of covenant into a covenant of grace, disregarding the process of sanctification that was supposed to accompany justification.
Two covenant forms: Relational and Contractual
Engaging this historical conversation concerning the concept of covenant I offer that there are two forms of covenant, but these are different from those offered by traditional Reformed theology. The first form of covenant describes any form of relationship that is offered gratis, irrespective of merit, worth or acceptance. These are relationships that are offered preceding and in spite of any response we may have to them. We do not get to control who loves us. This does not mean, however, that we are powerless in our response to them. There are certainly times in the Bible when God offers covenants to those seemingly “unworthy” of such a gift, centuries prior to the gift of the Law (in Paul’s words). And Jesus, in the Last Supper, offers a new covenant to those who he knows are moments away from betrayal. Covenant does not seem to always be dependent on mutual promises and obligations. In fact, in the cases of Abraham and Jesus,’ covenants are simply declared. I am your God and you are my people. This is the new covenant offered to you. The living out of this relationship follows the declaration of covenant.
The second form of covenant relationship entails a chosen contractual agreement wherein two parties agree to a relationship of mutual obligation and expectation. This form of covenant is also represented well in the Bible: between God and God’s people and person-to-person or tribe-to-tribe. In everyday life, such covenants are exemplified in many ways such as marriage, long-term partnership or even one’s professional position. The line between these two forms of covenant is not solid or clear as this second form may take on qualities of the first. But I would argue that the “given” or “gratis” form of covenant is in no way dependent on action by, obligation or expectation of the beloved.
In examining the nature of God in process theology, I am clearly emphasizing a form of atonement built into the very nature of existence, preferencing the first definition of covenant in defining God’s relationship with humanity. The vision or aim of God, perpetually offered to the world, is not controlling but one that is offered in the form of unmerited, persuasive and responsive love – a love interested in the creative becoming of the other. The works of Gabriel Marcel and many process and feminist theologians have emphasized that relationships of love transform and heal who we are in our whole being. Therefore, a covenantal atonement holds promise for providing a holistic understanding of atonement that reaches beyond amelioration of sin. Atonement becomes a perpetual experience of the nearness and vision of God, a presence in which our lives are shaped and empowered.
The writers of the Synoptic Gospels recount that the reign of God, envisioning and enacting the restored covenant between God and God’s people, was the focus of Jesus’ life and this tenet provides a central focus for Christian theological reflection and faith. An inviolable covenantal relationship of love and acceptance, of God’s promising again and again to accompany humankind, is the very meaning of grace. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s offer of a covenant relationship leads to a broader vision of salvation and atonement that includes restoration, peace, and justice for all creation. This is the kingdom or reign of God that Jesus preached. It is a present reality, at hand, in the form of God’s vision of wholeness offered to each moment of existence. God persists in renewing the covenant, offering an inviolable relationship; this continues to be extended, even today, despite the crosses and persecutions we inflict on ourselves and others.
While we are all interrelated in our covenant relationship with God, each person and being is distinct. Moments and individuals are unrepeatable in agency and perspective. Blue grass singer Hazel Dickens once noted, at a concert, the beauty and sorrow of particular, unrepeatable loves. She told about leaving her coal-mining hometown in West Virginia as a teenager. There simply was not work there and she had to seek employment in the nearby larger city of Baltimore. She recounted a moment, the moment of releasing her mother’s hand, when she turned away from her home to leave. In her free hand, she had a lunch her mother had made and an extra pair of shoes. She said that she left confident in young naivete, believing that all loves were equivalent and that she would find loves that were akin to that of home. Now, she looked back, as an older woman, at that leaving moment. She had learned that each love was particular and completely unique. Hazel stated that if she had known then that she would never again find a mother’s love, she would not have so easily let go of her mother’s hand.
Even within the life of one person, one knows the swift pace of time and the perpetual shifts in perspective as one moves through life. While there is much inherited from the past, creating a continuity of personality, there are also drastic and subtle changes within one’s life path and self. Change entails both addition and negation or loss. Whitehead uses poetic language for this, saying that every moment carries the scars of its birth. Whether we discuss moments, or individuals, there is real loss and particularity even within a world of webbed, covenant relations. Recognizing the preciousness of each individual and our connection in the covenantal love of God, we can renew our vigor to protect one another and allow each other room to grow and speak honestly, in ways that support and challenge us.
Marit Trelstad is professor of constructive and Lutheran theologies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where she has served as chair of the religion department. Her scholarly work combines feminist, process and Lutheran theologies and has focused on Christology, theological anthropology, the doctrine of God, and science and religion.