Atonement, Hebrews and NT Theology

Moffitt, David M. Atonement and the Logic of the Resurrection in Hebrews (NovTSup 141; Leiden: Brill, 2011)

Twice (in both cases by people qualified to say such things) in recent weeks I have heard David Moffitt’s recently published dissertation referred to as “revolutionary.” So what’s all the fuss?

Moffitt’s argument has two strands that may earn the title “revolutionary.” The first is that the resurrection of Jesus, far from being peripheral or non-existent in Hebrews, actually plays a crucial role in the author’s argument that Christ is the exalted Son of God, our faithful high priest, and our forerunner in the faith who has already received the eschatological inheritance promised to us. The second is that atonement, rather than being enacted at the cross, takes place in the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus presents his life (not his death) on the altar. In Moffitt’s own summarizing words: “[h]is death sets the sequence into motion. His appearance before God in heaven effects atonement. The bridge between the two is his resurrection” (294).

The focal points of Moffitt’s arguments are as follows. First, Jesus is presented as an embodied human being in heaven—this can only be the case if he was raised from the dead. Second, Jesus is the forerunner of those who will inherit a “better resurrection” (11:35)—this can only be true if he himself has undergone that resurrection. Third, Hebrews is very clear that Jesus was not a priest on earth (8:1–4) but only in the heavenly sanctuary, and so we need to rethink the idea that Jesus’ offering of himself took place while on the cross. Fourth, Moffitt draws on recent studies in Leviticus observing that the significance of blood is not in the death of the animal but in its life—Jesus is approved as high priest by his offering of his own “indestructible life” (7:16), the resurrected life that he offered on the altar in heaven following his resurrection and ascension. Prior to the resurrection he did not have that indestructible life, and so he can hardly have offered it to God as a priest.

Much more could be said; undoubtedly many reviews will be appearing in print and online contexts in the months to come (See my more thorough, and largely positive, review in a forthcoming issue of Themelios). For the moment, however, my question is this: is the logical sequence of the atonement as Moffitt has presented it consonant with the rest of the New Testament? Without undermining the significance of the resurrection, other NT authors do speak of an atoning death: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3); “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom 5:10); “by his wound you were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). One also wonders about John 19:30—“It is finished.” What was finished, if not the mission of Jesus, part of which was to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins?

We should not dismiss a theory about how Hebrews views the atonement simply because it does not seem to be what every other NT author says about the atonement. But I will be very interested to see how Moffitt’s proposal works not only in Hebrews (on which I find it rather convincing) but in a broader NT perspective on the atonement. To offer one brief example: Romans 3:24–25 states that we are justified (no, I’m not going to get into that discussion!) through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation.” If we take up Moffitt’s perspective, must we understand the “public” element of Jesus’ self-offering as taking place in the heavenly sanctuary before the heavenly court, rather than on the cross before the crowds?

Moffitt’s book is mostly deserving of the hype it has received. Whether it moves past hype and becomes a turning point in how we understand the atonement in the New Testament remains to be seen.

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About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
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5 Responses to Atonement, Hebrews and NT Theology

  1. David M Moffitt says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and careful review of my book. For what it’s worth, I think your question about how this might fit with the rest of the NT (and, more broadly in early Christianity, for that matter) is of great importance. I will say that on this side of the book, I’ve been struck by certain texts in ways I’ve never really noticed before. Rom 4:25, for example, is curious, as is Rom 10:9. Perhaps more interesting, given your highlighting of the tradition Paul quotes in 1 Cor 15:3, is 1 Cor 15:17. Even for Paul the death of Jesus, it would appear, is not sufficient for dealing with sins (it is necessary, but not sufficient, any more than the death of an animal was sufficient for atonement in Jewish sacrificial ritual). In the book I make a brief note of the Rom 4 and 1 Cor 15 passages (p. 292 n. 159). If the larger argument of the book does prove to be helpful for understanding atonement in the NT more broadly (a claim I do not make, btw), my guess is that it will do so by highlighting the fact that Jewish sacrifice was a process, not a moment (and certainly not reducible to the act of slaughter). I suspect that Paul understood this too and could appeal to different elements of the process as he saw necessary. To put this differently, I suspect that when someone like Paul affirmed that Jesus died for our sins, he is probably thinking in synecdochal terms (just as we might speak of “getting behind the wheel” and mean a great deal more than that than just sitting behind a steering wheel).

    David Moffitt

    • Mike Kibbe says:

      David,

      Thanks for reading and responding to my post. I should begin by saying that thanks to you, I have been reading differently some NT texts outside of Hebrews that refer to Jesus’ “blood” or “sacrifice” as opposed to specifically mentioning his “death” (though, as you mention above, it is possible that they used “death” to refer to the whole event, not only Jesus’ time on the cross).

      Two follow-up questions: first, do you think that reading resurrection specifically in Paul as primarily “vindication” (i.e., Jesus rising from the dead confirms, for example, the fact that he atoned for sins on the cross) is mistaken? In other words, do you think Paul explicitly thought of “atonement” as something not actually accomplished until post-resurrection? Second, can you point to any NT texts outside of Hebrews that suggest a facet of atonement that does not take place until after the resurrection and ascension (even if the presentation of the blood on the altar in the heavenly sanctuary is not explicitly in view)? As I said earlier, I am not suggesting the absence of any such text would undermine your thesis.

      Mike

  2. Thomas Cotton says:

    I though much the same when I read through David’s dissertation. I did some digging and found that Lutherans have also placed an emphasis on Christ’s resurrection and the atonement.

    “Now, then, if the Father raised Christ from the dead, He, by this glorious resurrection act, declared that the sins of the whole world are fully expiated, or atoned for, and that all mankind is now regarded as righteous before His divine tribunal. This gracious reconciliation and justification is clearly taught in Romans 4:25: ‘Who was delivered for our offenses and was raised again for our justification.’ The term dikaiosis here means the act of divine justification executed through God’s act of raising Christ from the dead, and it is for this reason called the objective justification of all mankind. This truth Dr. Walther stressed anew in America. He taught that the resurrection of Christ from the dead is the actual absolution pronounced upon all sinners. (Evangelienpostille, p. 160ff.)…Calov, following Gerhard, rightly points out the relation of Christ’s recurrection to our justification as follows: ‘Christ’s resurrection took place as an actual absolution from sin (respectu actualis a peccato absolutionis). As God punished our sins in Christ, upon whom He laid them and to whom He imputed them, as our Bondsman, so He also, by the very act of raising Him from the dead, absolved Him from our sins imputed to Him, and so He absolved also us in Him.'” [Bibl. Illust., ad Rom. 4:25]

    Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols., St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951, II, p. 321. Romans 4:25.

    Tom Cotton

  3. David M Moffitt says:

    Mike,

    I see no reason to pose a dichotomy between resurrection as vindication and resurrection as an element in the process that results in atonement. Does Paul think along the same sacrificial lines as it seems to me Hebrews does? I don’t yet know, but I do want to do some thinking about this. Clearly Paul does not explain atonement in anything like the detail of Hebrews. At the very least, however, I would want to say that the Pauline texts I pointed to in my earlier post do not, it seems to me, require a vindication interpretation. Rom 4:25 seems to locate justification with Jesus’ resurrection. As for other texts, yes, I think there are some very telling ones. I’m currently working on an article on Acts 5:31, but I don’t want to say too nuch about that until I’ve thought it out a bit more.

  4. Herb Hofer says:

    Jesus had to deliver His Holy blood to the Holy of Holiest in Heaven to satisfie the alter in heaven as High priest, then He had to come back to earth and told the women on way to tell disciples, “Rejoice” NKJ. The Father had excepted the payment for sin. Jesus showed Himself to Disciples so they could know.
    Who else would take the payment to the Father but Jesus who knew the way. If He would not of done that, His comming to earth would be of no value. The Father only excepted that wich He would except. Herb

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