Friday, April 06, 2007

The offence of the cross

It is the orthodox belief of Christians all over the world that because man has sinned, God sent Christ to suffer and die in our place. Yet The Very Revd Jeffery John, Dean of St Albans, said in Radio 4’s Lent Talks, that this teaching is ‘repulsive’, ‘insane’, and makes God ‘sound like a psychopath’ or a ‘monster’. He talks of a God of ‘love and truth’, rather than one of ‘wrath and punishment’. In response to this trend in belief, Cranmer wishes to share with you part of his Good Friday sermon on the meaning of the cross.

The various versions of satisfaction atonement function with the assumption that doing justice depends on retribution. Punishment is the expression of the divine law and order, of the inviolability of the divine order of the world. This is reflected in Anselm’s substitutionary theory, which derives from the medieval feudal system. It not difficult to see that Anselm reflects this world view, but it would be wrong to summarily dismiss the doctrine because of this: God does not demand satisfaction for sin because he is in some way personally affronted or offended by transgression. What is at stake is the order and beauty of the universe, for which God is responsible. Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction atonement differs significantly from penal substitutionary atonement. Whereas penal substitution pictures retribution in terms of punishment exacted by divine law, for Anselm it was the offended honour of God that required retribution. This is an important distinction, because the image of penal substitution is not true satisfaction atonement as articulated by Anselm. Indeed, some scholars blame reformers like Calvin for the unhealthy images which focus on the ‘wrath’, ‘hostility’ or ‘dread’ of God. The logic of satisfaction atonement makes God the chief avenger, but, for Anselm, God is not one who has to inflict punishment, but rather is concerned with the defence of honour.

An atonement motif in which the Father has one of his children killed in order to show love to the rest has led ministers and scholars to claim that it presents an image of ‘divine child abuse’. And, quite reasonably, if God is omnipotent and all-loving, why could he not simply forgive humanity without demanding this sacrifice? But such criticisms only echo the flaws which Abelard found in substitutionary logic. He wrote:

If the sin of Adam was so great that it could be expiated only by the death of Christ, what expiation will avail for the act of murder committed against Christ, and for the many great crimes committed against him or his followers? How did the death of his innocent Son so please God the Father that through it he should be reconciled to us?

Since man cannot save himself, Anselm’s deletion of Satan from the equation logically leads to the conclusion that God is the only one left to orchestrate the death of Jesus. Calvin emphasised the substitionary office of Christ by explaining why God’s ‘wrath’ was necessary:

…unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death, we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and his hand is armed for our destruction; to embrace his benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone.

Notwithstanding these concerns, this model not only has a scriptural foundation, but it clearly articulates how Christ’s death two thousand years ago is relevant in the present age - the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14) in order that humanity be saved. In his substitutionary role (Gal 3:10, 13), Christ reveals that God is for us by taking on the burdens that we cannot handle. He does this to free us to engage in other more important and more happy and more fruitful activities than being caught up in our own guiltiness. God becomes flesh because God’s very being demands it in order to be in relationship with us, not because he is somehow obliged. Since law is the expression of the will of the Lawgiver, of the personal God, then, if it is broken, it cannot and does not heal itself. Sin has caused a break in the world order, a disorder so deep-seated that atonement is necessary. As Athanasius observed:

Repentance does not satisfy the demands of truth and justice. If the question pertained solely to the corruption of sin, and not to the guilt and ill-desert of it, repentance might be sufficient. But since God is both truthful and just, who can save, in this emergency, but the Logos who is above all created beings. He who created men from nothing could suffer for all and be their substitute. Hence the Logos appeared… He saw how inadmissible it would be for sin to escape the law, except through a fulfillment and satisfaction of the law.

‘Substitution’ or ‘satisfaction’ are appropriate words when it is accepted that it is God’s inner being that is being satisfied; not something external to himself. Talk of law, honour, justice and the moral order is true only in so far as these are seen as expressions of God’s own character’ (cf 2Tim 2:13; Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18; Ps 89:33; Dt 32:4). When he is ‘provoked’ (eg Dt 32:16 cf Jdg 2:12), it is not a limitation of his patience, but the inevitable reaction of God’s perfect nature to evil. Yet he does not treat us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Rom 2:4-16; 3:25). God has a kind of ‘dual nature’ – not that He is inconsistent, but that He is simultaneously both holy and love. The modern objection to the forensic language in relation to the cross is mainly due to the fact that the idea of the Divine Holiness has been swallowed up in that of the Divine Love; this means that the biblical idea of God, in which the decisive element is this twofold nature of holiness and love, is being replaced by the modern, unilateral, monistic idea of God.

And the mystery of the cross is impoverished by it; and the doctrine of the Church is rendered increasingly incomprehensible if its own ministers cease to understand it, or to preach it.

3 Comments:

Blogger Eddie said...

Would not your Grace agree with me that some of the confusion over the teaching of the cross can be laid at a lack of understanding of the Trinity. On the cross and angry Father was not punishing a Son who was completely separate from him. Rather, two persons of the Trinity were involved and when Christ suffered on the Cross, the the Triune God suffered. God did not punish someone else for the sins of mankind, he truly took our punishment himself.

6 April 2007 at 14:04  
Anonymous Voyager said...

Jeffery John would appear to be at one with David Jenkins in spreading self-doubt as confusion. There are clearly many in the Church of England who have reached the mid-point of the Bolton Abbey Strid without the security of the far bank of retirement, or the departuure bank of youth; and lose their balance in its flowing waters washing away their faith.


I thought the Bible worked in themes - Abraham hesitating but ultimately steeled to sacrifice Isaac - the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb (the poor sacrificing doves) - the dedication of the firstborn son to Yahweh.

The symbolism of Jesus as The Shepherd, but also The Unblemished Lamb. That the animal sacrifices of The Old Testament ceased with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

Henceforth Atonement would not be substitutionary through lambs or doves, but through devotion of Man to The Commandments....that the Death of Christ marked the transition from Animal Sacrifice to the Individual Conscience of Man and his obligation to uphold the Word of God through the Sacrifice of Christ as pathway to God.


That the punishment of evil in say the Flood had redemption in those God saved through Noah and his Ark; though even then one of his sons proved less worthy, just as Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers showed the Cain and Abel problem. Yet God provided a path to redemption through recognition of transgression and rejection of evil.

Jeffrey John to my mind has fallen into the anthropomorphic trap of reducing God to human scale and human values, which is a 20th Century tendency and reflects a limited intellectual grasp. I begin to wonder if each Christian understands Christ only to the limits of his intellect, because the increasing tendency of prelates to discuss Christianity in everyday terms has a soap-opera quality which makes some of us wonder if Jeffrey John sui generis actually believes in the same God. It is an unfortunate fact that it becomes increasingly hard to recognise the Christian Faith of the Reformation in many of the utterances of the modern Anglican Church, which sometimes seems like a Rotarian pep talk.

I shall quote from Alister McGrath "Luther's Theology of the Cross"

Crux probat omnia. For Luther, Christian thinking about God comes to an abrupt halt at the foot of the cross. The Christian is forced, by the very existence of the crucified Christ, to make a momentous decision. Either he will seek God elsewhere, or he will make the cross itself the foundation and criterion of his thought about God. The 'crucified God' - to use Luther's daring phrase - is not merely the foundation of the Christian faith, but is also the key to a proper understanding of the nature of God.

The Christian can only speak about the glory, the wisdom, the righteousness and the strength of God as they are revealed in the crucified Christ. For Luther, the cross presents us with a riddle - a riddle whose solution defines the distinctively Christian understanding of both man and God. If God is present in the cross, then he is a God whose presence is hidden from us. As Luther observed, citing Isaiah 45.15, "Truly you are a hidden God!". And yet the unfolding of that hidden presence of God in the scene of dereliction upon the cross holds the key to Luther's protracted search for a gracious God. Noone would dream of seeking God in the 'disgrace, poverty, death and everything else that is shown to us in the suffering Christ' - nevertheless, God is there, hidden and yet revealed, for those who care to seek him.

6 April 2007 at 16:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason for the crucifixion is easy to understand by refering to Gen 9:5b NIV.
Since taking a male human life by bloodshed is accountable directly to God, Jesus by his crucifixion made it necessary for each man to repent of the one sin of Jesus' murder in order to be forgiven of ALL sins. The Acts 2:38 command is two edged regarding that NOT having the faith to obey this command by repenting of the sin of Jesus' murder is also NOT giving the accounting God requires from each man too regarding the sin of crucifying Jesus. Jn. 16:8 It only takes a violation of one of God's commands to be guilty of death. Anselm's conjecture has never been remotely correct.

5 May 2007 at 19:30  

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