New Covenant: new law, new priest, new sacrifice

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It’s been nine months since my last, and you might expect me to say “confession,” but “post” will have to do. I apologize for the absence.

I’d like to pass along some reflections regarding the NT letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews has been the grounds for a certain argument in favor of a substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death about which I’ve found myself recently in conversation after conversation. How shall we read Hebrews?

If you’ve been an evangelical very long (as I have), you were probably raised on a substitutionary (perhaps penal-substitutionary) understanding of the Cross, and Hebrews was Exhibit A in defense of such a view. Hebrews was a systematic interpretation of a Levitical understanding of the Cross, a reading of the Cross in the values and terms and logic of Israel’s sacrificial economy. Christ was this system’s final and perfect instantiation, this economy of sacrifice finally working, finally efficacious, because it finally had the right offering. Israel’s sacrificial economy, established by God, finally ended because in Christ it finally succeeded. It was a fairly simple matter of mapping Jesus’ death onto Israel’s sacrificial system, particularly its logic of exchange, to arrive at an understanding of how the Cross is able to bring God and humanity together. Jesus is the perfection of the kind of sacrificial exchange which is the OT/Aaronic sacrificial system established by Mosaic law.

This is no longer how I read Hebrews. Contrary to the substitutionary view, let me suggest (with others, I’m not inventing this) that the Cross is not Israel’s sacrificial system finally working because it finally gets a sacrifice (Jesus) that makes it work, confirming its design and logic of exchange. On the contrary, the Cross is that system finally failed and rejected by God.

How then do we read Hebrews as a repudiation of the standard substitutionary view? And if Christ’s death is such a repudiation, how are we to understand his death and our need for it?

The relevant material is Chs. 7-10. Note the following:

1. The Contrasts. A substitutionary view of Christ’s death understands Hebrews to be interpreting his death in light of a fundamental comparison between the OT sacrificial system and Christ. That is, by virtue of the fundamental similarity between the two, Jesus is viewed as that system’s chief instantiation, the perfection and fulfillment to its logic of exchange (forgiveness and acceptance for suffering and death).

But when read carefully, I suggest, we see that the author’s apologetic proceeds not upon a comparison between Jesus and the OT sacrificial system, but upon fundamental contrasts, not upon on a similarity that binds them together and which understands Christ’s death as an instantiation of the Levitical kind, but upon a dissimilarity that makes it impossible to interpret Jesus’ death according to the values, logic, and terms of Israel’s sacrificial economy. It is in the essential contrasts which Hebrews makes where we see the contradiction between the values and logic of each.

sac31.a Contrast of Origins. The logic of the OT sacrificial system requires (7.12) that priests be of the tribe of Levi. Hebrews contrasts Jesus with this, for Jesus is of the tribe of Judah (7.11-14), not Levi. Note the dissimilarity. Jesus does not even qualify for priestly service (7.5, 11) according to the Mosaic law which maintains the integrity of Israel’s sacrificial system.

1.b Contrast of Priestly Order. It was Ch. 7 that first suggested to me a real disjunct (contrast) at the heart of the relationship between OT sacrificial economy and how we are to understand Christ’s death. Not only is Jesus not born of the tribe of Judah (7.14), but his priesthood (his service to God and humanity) is after the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7). He performs an altogether different service. Jesus is not a member of Israel’s priestly cast, and his death not a species of “Levitical sacrifice.” He is its contradiction.

As ‘high priest’ (in identification with and representation of us) Jesus is not doing the same thing Israel’s high priests do but doing it perfectly, efficaciously. As a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7.11-28), Jesus is doing something entirely different, something not located within Israel’s Levitical logic. His is a new priesthood of a different order.

1.c Contrast in Legal/Covenantal Grounds. The “law” (7.12) defines the terms of relation and exchange, consequence, forgiveness (9.22), a way of relating to God. For “when there is a change of the priesthood there has to be a change of the law” (7.12). Jesus’s priestly act (via his life, death, resurrection, and present intercession) is thus not exemplary of the established Levitical regulation. He embodies an entirely different approach to God enacted within an altogether different law. In contrast to an Aaronic mediation of death and blood, Christ’s ‘Melchizedekian’ service mediates “on the basis of an indestructible life” (7.16). That is its logic, its law. Jesus’ death does not confirm Israel’s sacrificial logic/law (7.12). He is where that logic finally fails, and a new and living way, a new priesthood (mode of representation) established upon a “new law” (terms of relation, exchange, consequence, forgiveness, etc.) is revealed. Christ is thus where and how “the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless” (7.18) and “a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God.”

How much clearer could the fundamental contrast be? The crucifixion is what the Mosaic/Aaronic sacrificial systems does to the new covenant’s “new and living way.” The Cross is where two diametrically opposed orders of sacrifice meet. Israel’s entire economy of sacrifice (its priesthood, its legal/contractual grounds, its terms and logic) is “useless” (v. 18), not useless until it finds in Christ a kind of victim whose blood will make it useful. Rather, he once and for all exposes Israel’s economy of sacrifice inherently useless. “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (8.7). This is not the sort of language one employs if one wishes to say that Jesus’ death is the embodied perfection of the logic that defines Israel’s sacrificial economy.

1.d Contrast in Kind/Mode of Sacrifice (i.e., ‘Blood’). Why should Jesus’ death/blood be necessary at all if it was not a sacrifice of the Aaronic order of relations? Doesn’t blood (i.e., death) as such entail something like a penal-substitution? Why else would Jesus’ life of loving surrender to God culminate in so violent a sacrifice of his life? Two answers come to mind:

1.d.1 First, the contrasts thus far establish the need for Christ’s violent death. This is not to somehow condone the logic of Israel’s sacrificial order. Nor does it contradict the fact that Christ’s priestly service is based on the power of an “indestructible life” (7.16). Rather, the contrasts, which are real, must be revealed. The first covenant, with its sacrificial logic (“weak and useless” as it was, 7.18) required explicit defeat of its terms, and defeat of its terms meant defeat in its terms. Thus, Israel’s weak and useless system must exhaust itself in its own ideal terms and circumstances. It must scapegoat and offer to God a truly (infinitely) innocent victim, on behalf of the very survival of the nation (Jn. 11.51), thus operating at its best, under ideal conditions, and according to its quintessential logic. Only in such an event could its failure be made plain and the whole system “set aside” (10.9). This is precisely what we find in the Cross (Col 2.13-15).

Christ’s resurrection is thus to be viewed the same way, as God’s verdict upon a Levitical understanding of Christ’s death. How so? Because Israel’s offering is rejected. God gives back to the world its sacrifice. He rejects the blood that Israel’s sacrificial economy required. To be sure, a sacrifice acceptable to God is made by Jesus, but it is a sacrifice of an entirely different order, the loving surrender to God of his whole life, sharing our humanity and our experience of death. What Israel does on the Cross is thus not what God is doing there – as the Resurrection alone reveals. The Cross is what Israel’s sacrificial economy does to the (loving/peaceful) sacrifice Jesus makes of his whole life to God in identifying with our condition. Identification, not substitution.

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1.d.2 Second, 9:16-28 relates the necessity of blood (9.16) in the enforcing of a “will.” Notice that talk of ‘wills’ places us within the domain of civil, not criminal, law. That is, blood here is not the satisfying of any punitive demands of the law. On the contrary, it has in view only the terms in which humanity can be effectually comprehended within the promises of God – promises that extend unending life to those embraced by its terms. That comprehension must involve Christ’s death, his blood, but not the blood which Israel’s sacrificial system requires. Rather, the death which is our “shared humanity,” in order to “become an effectual high priest” of a new and living way. Death as such must be negotiated to ratify the new covenant ‘will’ in the mortal experience of those governed by that new will. Mortality and death are the terms in which Christ must introduce the ‘new law’ of a ‘new covenant’ that grants us indestructible life. Ch. 2.14-15 makes this clear: “He shares their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The blood Jesus must shed to establish our destiny under the new covenant is thus not the blood which Israel’s economy of sacrifice demands. Rather, it is the blood that represents humanity’s futility, its mortality, death itself, the “fear of which enslaves” human beings (2.15). Notice there is nothing peculiar in 2.14ff about tabernacle, altar, or sin offerings per se. In 2.14-17a Christ is to free us from our fear of death, and of course ultimately death itself. He does this by (2.9) by “tasting death for everyone” (that is, by dying). When 2.17b introduces “making atonement for the sins of the people,” this atoning work follows, and is followed by, no mention of tabernacle or altar. Rather, atonement appears within the whole scope of Jesus’ incarnate career. He atones (here in Ch. 2) by being made like us, by being tempted like us, and by suffering like us. Suffering what precisely? Here it is not the crucifixion, but rather “being tempted,” i.e., suffering the conditions of a mortal human existence, including death. The “because” linking v. 17 and 18 is interesting: “…that he might make atonement for the sins of the people…because he himself suffered when he was tempted….” Wouldn’t we expect “because he suffered when he was crucified” as description of suffering that atones and reconciles? How does Jesus suffering the common lot of human temptation define the “atoning” work of Christ as high priest (17b)? And consider, high priests are not ‘substitutes’, they are ‘representatives by virtue of a shared nature.’ Christ’s lived sufferings (which of course extends to the end of his life in a violent death), under the conditions of (“because” of) our shared humanity – these all together constitute the ‘blood’ (viz., the life of Jesus in its total surrender under the violent conditions of the world he came to reconcile) of Ch 9.16-28, the blood of the new covenant, united by Christ to God himself (the heavenly realities of 9.23-24). It is the blood of the “new covenant” after all. The blood of penal-substitution is precisely not this, but is instead the same blood of the old (weak/useless) covenant.

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2. Use of OT Prophetic Critique. Note the use of key OT passages critical of blood sacrifice. This critique is widespread in the Prophets, including a repeated emphasis that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are his concern. Several passages make this clear:

  • Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”
  • Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
  • Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial system had its origin in divine command at all (7.21-22): “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Emphasis mine)

One could go on. Take Heb 10.8:

  • “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ though they were offered in accordance with the law.”

Notice the tension here. Burnt offerings and sin offerings were offered “in accordance with the law.” Thus, Mosaic legislation establishes the integrity of the sacrificial system. Presumably God wanted and ordained blood sacrifice. This would need to be the case if Christ’s death is to be understood as the perfection of that system’s sacrificial logic. On the other hand, we’re told God “did not desire” this system and “was not pleased” with its offerings. Note Jeremiah’s stunning declaration (Jer. 7.21-22) that God never in fact commanded or instructed Israel to institute blood sacrifice. It wasn’t his idea.

What sense are we to make of this? Did God or did God not institute blood sacrifice to ‘set the stage’ for the greatest blood sacrifice of all? My answer will not please everybody. I suggest that God worked with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require such sacrifice. Consider Israel’s demand for a king, which God took to be a rejection of him. God went with it, even incorporated Israel’s monarchy into their prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. At best, God tolerated it.

Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never wanted or endorsed this (Mt 19.8). God only tolerated it because of Israel’s hard heartedness. We mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggestive of his endorsement of those positions.

sac5I suggest we view Israel’s entire system of blood sacrifice this same way – as something Israel insisted upon but which God tolerated. It’s difficult to imagine God commanding Israel’s blood sacrifice as such when you consider that blood sacrifice is older than Israel and was the common mode of worship for all Israel’s pagan neighbors. We should view OT regulation of blood sacrifice as God managing for the best what Israel was intent upon but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for providing us terms of similarity upon which to map our understanding of Christ’s death.

Back to Heb 10. Consider vv. 5-6:

  • “Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me’….”

The mention of “a body you have prepared for me” might suggest that Jesus is being identified as a sacrifice of the Levitical order. But this is impossible. It asks us to imagine God not being pleased with sacrifice and offering but being pleased with making Christ just such a sacrifice. Where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary, it is to demonstrate the lengths to which God must go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to him. See 1.d.1 above. How can God get it across to Israel that he is not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: By submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to that sacrificial economy – antithetical to him in every way – letting it exhaust all its resources upon him, and then rising from its death as a rejection of it, exposing once and for all its failure and impotence.

Space won’t allow me to explore at length Israel’s Second Temple mystical apocalyptic tradition of a heavenly court as a possible context for Heb 9, where spiritual realities and transactions are mirrored in earthly rituals. One should examine how this argument functions. All the instruments of the earthly tabernacle have heavenly counterparts where Jesus presented his blood in God’s presence. I can see how the language of ‘shadow/substance’ and ‘heavenly copies’ lends itself to seeing the relationship between the two in strongly similar terms, so the challenge is to read this language as mapping essential differences, for however one takes the language, it cannot contradict the contrasts which the letter makes in explicit terms.

It’s not as though there are zero similarities though. The author is after all bringing Jesus’ death into conversation with Israel’s law and priesthood, not with the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities. There has to be some shared context, some genealogical connection. But this is not difficult to see, given Christ’s place within Israel’s history. Also, the relevant terms obtain on both sides: ‘priesthood’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘law’. And both attempt to bring worshippers near to God. And yet priesthood, sacrifice, and law are not the same in each, hence the irreconcilable contrasts.

I hope we have enough here to disenchant those who view Christ’s death as the perfection of the sacrificial logic operative in Israel’s sacrificial economy and reason enough for them to leave the substitutionary reading behind.

Divine freedom

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Forgive the infrequency of my posts. For me blogging is like the tide – it swells up and down under the force of issues that bring their urgency to bear upon me at a regularity I can’t make out. But here I am.

The most vexing theological question I’ve been confronting for some time now is the question of divine freedom relative to Creation. As I dance around it, its different aspects come out to greet me, but I can’t resolve them into a contradiction-free view. I know the options on offer but am not completely happy with any of them.

On the one hand:

• God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) and so freely and unnecessarily.
• This has to at least mean that God’s triune fullness (God as infinite love and beatitude) is not achieved in or through his determination to create, for per ex nihilo the determination to create expresses that triune beatitude; it cannot also constitute it. So it cannot be that the determination to create is co-terminous with the begetting of the Son (as John Milbank recently tweeted) if that means the Father begets the Son ‘with a view to’ creating. This would effectively write the determination to create into the Triune relations in and as their content and telos, as sharing in the content of that act by which God is the God he is. (McCormack and Jenson are already here; God determines himself as Trinity in and via the determination to creation. I’m unable to say this, for it obviously denies creation ex nihilo and the triune plentitude implied therein.)

On the other hand:

• The logoi (God’s creative intentions for the world) of the Word/Logos/Son are uncreated and abide essentially in the Word. This constitutes for me the vexing question regarding divine freedom. For though the determination to create as free and unnecessary does not define the begetting of the Son (and I don’t see how it can), the logoi (which are the very possibility of creation) do have their shape and form in that begetting. If we say creation ex nihilo means the divine logoi may abide unrealized/unactualized in the creation they envision, what’s that really mean? The possibilities of creation define the Word within the scope of his begotten filial identity, but the fullness and beatitude of that identity is indifferent to the realization of these logoi?

You may see the problem. And I’m not uploading unsavory assumptions about some temporal before and after here. Let’s leave that aside for now. We need only contemplate the relationship in God between his triune fullness and his free determination to creation.

Enter divine teleology. What is the ‘end’ of these logoi if not Creation? But if they’re realized freely and unnecessarily, what can their realization in creation be unnecessary to but God’s own triune fullness and beatitude? I wonder if we may imagine the ‘end’ for which the logoi subsist as fulfilled ad intra. After all, we say the end/purpose of all things is God. If Creation is unnecessary, then its very possibility in God has to have God, always and already, as its satisfaction. This may seem strange, but what about any of this isn’t? It would mean the logoi are fulfilled in the Word, as the Word, as possibilities, but the possibility they represent for us is in God a fulfilled end, and that the Word as begotten is that end fulfilled.

In any event, I can’t imagine the divine fullness (or my own salvation in Christ) apart from creation ex nihilo, but I also find it increasingly difficult to imagine the generation of creative potentialities (logoi) in the Son that logically entail nothing whatsoever about God’s determination to create, as if the fullness that begets the logoi is indifferent to their actualization as creation – and yet they must be so. (I’m not entirely satisfied with this, but McCormack and Jenson only exacerbate the problem.)

All I can think to say is that in begetting the Son, the Father constitutes himself as an infinite disposition for creative self-expression ad extra and that this just is God’s freedom, not a reflection of it, but that freedom itself, and that as freedom it must be the case that creating is unnecessary to it, but that as teleological it must be the case that every creative act realizes ends constitutive of it. Hence, God creates freely/unnecessarily in the sense that the ‘end’ for which he acts expresses rather than realizes his own plentitude. Whichever aspect we confess, we confess a mystery and paradox.

Divine Location

For my friend Al Kimel, inspired by his lack of interest in Bulgakov.

Dr. Kimel’s in the house, rhymin’ on toppa Classical,
Ain’t no fugitive runnin’ scared, but he ain’t too elastical,
But at’s OK cause his heart is seekin’ the right place to go,
Passionate bout the glory of the Master’s face. You know,
Al is all about Dionysius and his apophatic trill,
Ain’t got no analytic use, but it’s existential skill,
Transcendence all up in yo face, got no place to hide,
Can’t reduce it to a syllogism, but we gonna let that slide
Cause the heart is made for more than logical notation,
Desire’s final end? The divine location.

O Anchoress

norwhichI stumbled into Malcome Guite’s site and am loving his sonnets. This one, written for Julian of Norwhich (on the occasion of her feast last month, May 8), first drew me in:

Show me O Anchoress, your anchor-hold
Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.
Show me again in whose hands we are held,
Speak to me from your window in the past,
Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion
For all of us who fall onto the mire,
How he is wounded with us, how his passion
Quickens the love that haunted our desire.
Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment
Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,
Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,
And looks on us with pity not with blame.
Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,
Love is his meaning, only love, forever.

The Cross and the transformation of evil

sac2I’ve been enjoying recent conversations about the Cross. These have centered on Rene Girard’s critique of sacrifice and the work of Girard’s close friend, Swiss Jesuit Raymund Schwager whose appropriation of Girard’s work to biblical studies and theology is most clearly worked out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, from which is taken the passage below.

The question concerns the nature of the Cross as sacrifice when read against the background of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice and from which economy we cannot extract the Cross. The letter to the Hebrews figures in hugely here for it so obviously compares and contrasts Christ’s death against this OT background. How are we to understand the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make? Is the Cross even an instance of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice, or does it subvert and expose that economy? We unequivocally condemn the evil of Christ’s crucifixion, and yet the language of ‘sacrifice’ has been embedded in Christian worship and ascetic practice throughout its entire history.

David Bentley Hart urges us not to view the Cross as “a” sacrifice but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice,” that the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make are these two opposed orders of sacrifice, that “[t]he crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event.” (emphasis mine) Here are two “currents of stress,” notes Hart, within Israel’s faith, and they are imposed upon us by the clear presence in the Old Testament of two contrary perspectives on sacrifice, one which affirms and celebrates (and portrays God as affirming and celebrating) Israel’s blood rituals, and another which unambiguously condemns and subverts that economy as such. These are not easy currents to separate, or even always to identify. But surely worship and ascetic practice are finally free of the “stress” Hart notes so that we may celebrate the sacrifice Christ makes without affirming the sacrifice those who crucify him make. To that end, let’s consider some of what Schwager has to say on the subject.

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On the question of the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament there is another issue to consider, which makes things ever more complex. We are faced here not only with a cultic institution which is hard to interpret, but also an equally strong criticism of sacrifice, especially by the prophets. The great crisis in Israel which manifested itself at first in the destruction of the northern kingdom (721 B.C.) and then led to the long-drawn agony which lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (587 B.C.), stirred up faith in Yahweh in its inmost depths and called forth the great messages of the prophets. Faced with the threat, the prophets expected no help from God through the sacrificial cult, rather they saw in it an expression of that falsehood and mendacity which was responsible for the fatal crisis. In the name of Yahweh they proclaimed: “I hate your festivals, I loathe them and cannot smell your solemn assemblies. Even though you present burnt offerings to me, I take no pleasure in your gifts and I will not look at your fat peace offerings” (Amos 5:21-22). Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial cult went back to a command of God: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jer. 7:21-23; 6:20; Amos 5:25). The prophets called for true knowledge of god, justice and love, not in addition to the sacrifices but in opposition to them: “I want steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Isa. 1:10-17; Ps. 40:7ff)…

…The unsolved problem of the Old Testament sacrificial cult would seem to make it impossible to develop a systematic interpretation of the death of Christ from that starting point. Certainly, the letter to the Hebrews sees the cross explicitly against the background of the cult, and it describes Christ as the high priest who offered a sacrifice. But the letter to the Hebrews can make these statements only because, by the use of numerous antitheses, it totally alters the concepts of both priest and sacrifice. First of all it separates Christ from the great, broad tradition of the Aaronic and Levite priesthood and links him with the priest king Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-24), who is a marginal figure in the Old Testament and is mentioned there only briefly on two occasions (Gen. 14:18; Ps 110:4) As high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:1-13; 9:15), and to him belongs also a quite new priestly order. He does not have to offer sacrifices day after day for himself and the people (Heb. 7:25-28), nor does he enter an earthy sanctuary in order to sprinkle it with the blood of he-goats and bulls. Rather, he brought about a redemption once for all, and entered into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-10:18). From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people because “purified in the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of their sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: “But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possible take away sins” (Heb. 10:3ff). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and talking no pleasure in them, even though “these are offered according to the law” (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.

Rene Schwager

Schwager (left) and Girard (right)

The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament, a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which – in awakening consciousness of sin – was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguist function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in which the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ’s own worlds (Heb. 10:18ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.

There is, it is true, one point where the question arises as to whether the letter to the Hebrews might, after all, recognize a certain continuity of content between the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Christ. The cult operated through blood (Heb. 9:7, 18-22), and Christ too offered himself as a sacrifice through his blood (Heb. 9:14). The Aaronic and Levite priests sprinkled with others’ blood (that of he-goats and bulls), whereas Christ entered the sanctuary with his own (Heb. 9:12; 10:19; 12:24). But does this difference (others’ or one’s own blood) abolish the continuity between the cult and Christ’s death, or is there a certain common basis in the shedding of blood?

The issue of the shedding of blood, so important for the letter to the Hebrews, points first to the need to examine and interrogate from a Christian perspective those theories of sacrifice arising from the study of religion which also emphasize the shedding of blood (the act of killing). The explicit statement that Christ offered a sacrifice with his own blood shows, moreover, that the problematic with which we began our reflections on sacrifice is in fact central. At the beginning of this section we asked how self-sacrifice is to be understood. If Christ identified himself not with the evil will of his opponents, but with their concrete actions (crucifixion), did he not therefore fully agree to his being killed? Can one not also take the statement that Christ sacrificed himself as high priest “with his own blood” as an indication of the indirect killing of himself? In considering the fate of Jesus we have often come across the them of God’s nonviolence. But now the more subtle question arises, whether we have to understand this concept in such a way that Christ, although he shunned all violence against others, finally turned that violence against himself – in self-sacrifice. Seeing things this way, could one not very easily link up the great Old Testament themes of judgment and God’s vengeance, the tradition of cultic killing, and also many New Testament utterances about judgment, with the message of nonviolence (toward others)? The cross would then be a sacrifice in the sense that the priest (Christ) did in fact kill something, namely, himself…Is there consequently a self-aggression in the service of the higher good? Because of this question we must once more go into the problematic of judgment at a new and deeper level. If the thesis that God in his anger directly struck and destroyed his Son by means of sinners (K. Barth) did not stand up to scrutiny, the more subtle problematic still remains, namely, whether he led the crucified one through obedience to self-aggression and thereby judged him. Christ would then have taken on himself the self-judgment of sinners in the sense that he did in full consciousness and freedom what sinners do in their blindness: judge and destroy themselves.

This question is not easy to answer, since we would need to feel our way into the inner attitude of Jesus and the New Testament utterances make use of words which come up in different contexts and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. However the question one with very great consequences. If the outcome is affirmative, then everything which we have worked out so far has to be looked at again in a completely fresh light, with considerable consequences for Christian spirituality and the practice of the faith.

In the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, violent death was understood to imply only judgment and curse, while the New Testament sees the cross of Christ as positive. How is this difference to be understood? Since the Old Testament cult also attributes a positive atoning effect to the sacrificial death of animals, we must look into the question already addressed earlier in this investigation, namely, whether the formal element in atonement resides in the act of killing. The difference between the old and new order would consist in this, that in the former animals were killed daily, whereas in the latter Christ sacrificed and (indirectly) killed himself once for all.

Since the letter to the Hebrews understands Melchizedek as king of peace (Heb. 7:1ff.), such a view immediately causes problems But peace could be understood as a paradoxical result of “aggressivity turned in upon itself.” A useful indication is given by the letter to the Hebrews where it takes up the Old Testament’s critical line against sacrifice and, putting words into Christ’s mouth, also makes him say that he comes in order to do the divine will. Subsequently, the letter goes on: “And by that will we have been sanctified once and for all by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (dia tes prosphoras tou somatos Iesou Christou, Heb. 10:10). The sanctification was brought about fundamentally through the will of God, fulfilled by Christ. The agreement of wills was decisive. But what is meant by the addition ‘through the offering of the body”? Could it be that God wanted not the concrete burnt offering for sin but instead that element in this sacrifice, the killing, which pointed to the self-sacrifice of Christ? Even the apparently unambiguous text about the abolition of cultic sacrifice and about sanctification through the divine will can consequently be read in two different, even opposed directions.

Another passage in the letter to the Hebrews runs:

For by a single sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their heart and write them on their minds”; then he adds, “I will remember their sins and transgressions no more.” Where sins are forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Heb. 10:14-18)

The New Testament letter makes a direct connection in this passage between the unique sacrifice of Christ and the saying of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant. The will of Christ in his surrender is hereby formally identified with the new law which God inscribes on our innermost hearts. But self-aggression could not have a place under this new, inner, law, for otherwise disturbing consequences would follow for our understanding of God’s kingdom and of the life of completeness with God.

sac1A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: “For if the blood of goats…sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead words so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also ‘by the power of the eternal Spirit.” The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from with us “Abba” (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of the Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ’s will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).

For the true understanding of Christ’s sacrifice we must consequently look for a different solution from that of self-destruction. The persistent question is this: how was the crucified one able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents (condemnation and crucifixion) if he did not wish (indirectly) to destroy himself? Ethnology and the study of sacrificial cults in the different religions point not only to the act of killing but also to the important theme of transformation from the profane to the sacred…

…The ”conversion” and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enable us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly will such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity.

All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified on and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit…(mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: “And Jesus cried loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit’” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrender and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.

Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one’s own life and one’s own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all of a person’s strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However, Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46)…

Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience….

(Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption)

Famous last words

commit1On the Cross, Jesus dies. But how does he die? The Psalms he read throughout his life are in his head, informing his interpretation of his own suffering, shaping his experience, ‘opening a new and living way through his flesh’ (Heb 10.19-20). That new and living way is here, on the Cross. Christ opens it. His experience of suffering is that way ‘open’ to us – hence our call to participate in its sufferings (pace Moltmann who insists Christ died alone and that our crosses are not a participation in his). We’ve explored Ps 22 (My God, My God, why?), Ps 42, and now Ps 31. From Ps 31.5 Jesus lifts “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Verse 14 (“I trust in your, Lord, I say ‘You are my God’) is interesting in light of some (including Cyril of Alexandria) who suppose Christ’s use of “My God” instead of “My Father” indicated a loss in him of a sense of the latter and a reduction of his faith to the former, i.e., God had become Christ’s “God” and not his “Father.” But this is nonsense. Even in the Psalms “God” articulates faith and trust. It’s not what one calls God because one is without the belief that God is also Father (cf. Jn 20.17, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”).

I present Ps 31 here in its entirety because from it Christ takes his last words (“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” v. 5). We know this psalm, along with Ps 22 and Ps 42, are where Christ went in his darkest hour to define himself. The contexts explain why Christ came here to die – and there is nothing of the despairing modern pathology that understands the Cross as divine withdrawal or abandonment.

Psalm 31 (NRSV)

1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD,
for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
that speak insolently against the righteous
with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
“I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications
when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints.
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the LORD.

Soren got it

pearlBasically everything we’ve been trying to say about the unbroken nature of Christ’s knowledge of the Father’s affection throughout his suffering and its saving-transforming power in us:

“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself….” (SK)

That happened on the Cross – for all of us.

Thank you Soren Kierkegaard – you genius you.