Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death

One of the most interesting developments in recent theology is the renewed focus on the atonement or the meaning of the saving work of Christ.  There is nothing more basic to Christianity than salvation and many (I am thinking here of my experience with beginning theology students) seem to presume there must be absolute consensus. While there are a variety of biblical metaphors for atonement these are usually sorted out into the standard overarching theories: Christus Victor or Christ’s victory over Satan, satisfaction (which included particular readings of sacrifice and punishment) and the moral influence theory (Christ died to demonstrate the love or wrath of God). (Some would suggest that ransom constitutes a separate theory and note that divine satisfaction should be separated out from penal substitution.) More recent theories have evolved around Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory in which Christ as the last scapegoat undoes the scapegoating mechanism.  This fits well with development of nonviolent theories of atonement such as J. Denny Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor.  David Brondos sets forth ten additional soteriological models (e.g. redemption/recapitulation, theosis or the union of the divine and human natures, entry into the Kingdom, reconciliation, liberation, and proclamation).  One might term this a crisis in soteriology but, though there are competing models which contradict the others, the overall trend is toward a more participatory and transformational understanding of the death of Christ.  There is a gradual closure of the gap that is present in many theories between the benefits of the death of Christ (e.g. some reducing it to going to heaven) and living out the Christian life as a disciple (ethics).  Michael Gorman[1] suggests that all have fallen short (they are all stuck on the penultimate “how” and have missed the all-embracing “what”) in not naming “new-covenant” as the category under which all the others can be subsumed.[2]  Gorman is building on the shift to a more participatory understanding (entry into the Kingdom through living out a cruciform life) but the specific thing which this new-covenant brings about is peace (in Gorman’s explanation and in his exhaustive proof of this explanation from Scripture). What I would add to Gorman’s “new-covenant of peace,” which Gorman is far from alone in recognizing (though it may have gone unnamed as a theory of atonement), is that this “what” of salvation contains within it the very “how” he would set aside (the end or goal of salvation as the peaceable Kingdom gives us a direct insight into how it works as a displacement of a world grounded in violence).

To get at this “how” through the “what” of salvation it is necessary to do for the problem (sin), what Gorman has done for the resolution (atonement or salvation).  To subsume the disparate explanations of sin (alienation, missing the mark, misorientation to the law, violence, darkness, deception, etc.) it is necessary to recognize the primal “covenant with death” as the all- embracing category which the covenant of peace displaces.  This primal covenant, whose roots are in Genesis, is a rejection of an original covenant with God so as to take up the counter-promise of the serpent. The development of the serpent’s promise (“you will not die but you will be like gods), in Isaiah’s explanation, is to be found in idolatrous religion, which presumes to defeat death by entering into an agreement with the grave (Isaiah 8 and 28).  The covenant with Mot (death reified or presumed to be divine) poses all of the counter-possibilities which will be displaced by the covenant of the peaceable Kingdom.

There is a trinitarian element implied in the term “covenant” which functions in both the covenant with God and the covenant with death. This trinity is at once connected to the Trinitarian God and to the trinity of faith, hope, and love, which under the covenant with death becomes a faithless, hopeless, orientation to violence and death.  Where faith is connected to being true to a promise (the Father keeping covenant with and through the Son) this points to the necessity of faithfulness or living out the promise. Where this faithfulness is connected to a faithful self-giving love (the Father sending the Son and all the children of God taking up the cross), this indicates the cruciform shape of love as a defeat of faithless violence. The hope of life in the midst of death is the very essence of the possibility of peace (what Paul refers to as the hope of glory).  The whole action of the new-covenant comes from God sending his Son (the cruciform love of the covenant) and destroying sin (along with death and violence) and bringing life (and peace) in the Spirit through him. Life in the Spirit (pure peace) is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (cruciform love) who leads into the future by his Spirit (hope); in turn the covenant with death is a dis-communion founded by the displacement of the Father (with the law of sin) and we stand unclothed without the Son (the naked “I”) and we are led by a death dealing desire. The covenant with death reproduces this trinitarian element in a dynamic of absence. To state it succinctly, it reifies the law so that it now displaces the Father and becomes a dictate to the ego (“I”) producing death in the place of the life of the Spirit.  In other words, the covenant with death is traceable precisely as a displacement of the Trinitarian covenant of life and peace – which requires some elucidation.

At its most elemental level “covenant” has to do with language – covenants or promises are something we do in and through words. It may verge on the pedantic to note that law, covenant, creation, redemption, and sin, all occur within the realm of language.  God creates and gives life through his Word at both creation and in the recreation of the incarnation. So too we all are enabled to create and to have access to communal life through language.  Language is relational – it is learned as part of our entry into society and it is the ground of family and of marriage (“I do” seals the marriage covenant).  It is the means of communion with others and the world. The covenant with death, on the other hand, indicates that what language gives it can also take away. There is the possibility of entering into an un-relationship in which language is turned upon itself so that rather than acting as a conduit to others and the world language becomes a dynamic for alienation, disassociation, and death.  This form of language is a lie or deception in which words float free of any reality other than themselves.

Think here of the status of the serpent in the garden and of Paul’s explanation of this serpent in Ro. 7.  He does not presume to personify “it” but de-personifies it as “sin” within me.  Even in the Genesis narrative the status of this serpent is liminal – one of the creatures between, assigned to the dust and offering up no original voice but acting only as a counter-voice to God.  This voice comes from among those to whom no language is given and it exists among those Adam was to speak for through naming. This creature exists only as an obstacle between the full-blown personage of God and the humans he has made from dust (the stuff the serpent inhabits). This serpent speaks and disappears and one is left wondering as to the nature of the reality this creature inhabits. Language turned in upon its user becomes the animate force Paul calls sin.  Sin, he explains, is animated by deception in regard to the primal words of God (thou shalt not covet).  Sin is entry into a counter-covenant – not with life but with death, not with an animate, breathing person, but with an inanimate thing momentarily taking on the look of the living through covetous desire.  The three elements of covenant are still present but now their presence is refused in a dynamic of absence. The disembodied voice of the father (in the absence of relation – or covenant) speaks from within the “mind” of the ego (and as Paul describes, faithless incapacity is attached to this voice) and the ego or “I” is the imaginary audience of this word (the language Paul employs is that of sight/hope without an object).

Paul gets at the fact that one stands opposed to himself by doubling the reflexive capacity so that there are two “I’s” pitted against one another and these two “I’s” displace the relation between Father and Son and between the Creator and image bearer. One “I” gives voice to the law and functions as the father – condemning and punishing the other “I.” It is still language, covenant, and law, but it is now a counter-law, and a covenant with nothing which is given a voice.  Like the voice of the serpent, this law emerges in the liminal condition between the self as subject and object, speaker of the sentence and the one spoken to.  The Subject arises from the self-negating activity (taking up death into the self) of sacrificing or punishing himself on behalf of this father. In this reversal of the work of the three persons of the Trinity, the image of God we are to bear is now displaced by an object.  This object, ego, or idol has no inherent reality, it is nothing, but this nothing transfixes our gaze as it is the object of desire we would “die for” (see below).

We give voice to the demand for sacrifice and violence. The Father is displaced by the law, the law of sin and death, which sin animated and which is clearly a work we perform. “Sacrifice is a guarantee that ‘the Other exists’: that there is an Other who can be appeased by means of the sacrifice” (Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom, 56). Paul calls this masochistic self-relation the body of death as the antagonism between the “I” giving voice to and serving this law is the root of violence and death.  There is an inherent hostility towards the Other of the law (superego) as this Other demands continual service and sacrifice. In Freudian terms we would become our own father through the law (of sin, for Paul) we speak and implement and we spend our life in sacrificial service to what Freud referred to as an unconscious guilt. The law (in the sinful understanding) simultaneously entices and condemns as it holds out the promise of a transgressive knowledge apart from God and life on the basis of works of righteousness and yet the letter of the law (language reified) kills.

The new covenant of peace in its displacement of the covenant with death brings about peace by ending the violent antagonism constituting the Subject.  As James Dunn points out, becoming a child of God (Paul’s resolution to the hostility) is the fulfillment of the covenant. “Righteousness is not something which an individual has on his or her own, independently of anyone else; it is something one has precisely in one’s relationships as a social being.” God’s covenant faithfulness to his people is the fulfillment of his righteousness, and in turn the faithfulness of his children to this relationship is their righteousness. Righteousness is being brought into a right relationship with God and overcoming the alienation and hostility toward God and this resolves the alienating and violent conflict with the self and others. Where the sinful mind is by definition “hostile to God,” subject as it is to the covenant of death, the one adopted as a child by the Spirit has overcome this hostility through the new-covenant of peace (Ro. 8.7).

Our participation in the life of the Trinity through covenant faithfulness (the Father’s faithfulness to the promise) played out in cruciform love (through the Son) enables the hope of peace (walking in the Spirit).  Here the “what” of the new-covenant of peace gets at the “how” of the overcoming of sin in the covenant with death.

[1] Whom I am following in the above list.

[2] See his work entitled The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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