If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

12724940_1720132754866853_78842786_nI’m in the middle of James Alison’s Knowing Jesus and hope soon to put together some thoughts on 1Cor 2.2 where Paul resolves to “know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” In the meantime, because I’ve been discussing a good deal about whether, and if so how, the Cross can be the “center” (the hermeneutical center of faith as it engages Scripture), I want to offer a thought on the general tendency to make the Cross (at least a certain vision of the Cross) the place where Christ suffers the godforsakenness we justly deserve because of our sin. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I don’t doubt there is a Cross “because” of our sins, and I don’t doubt that Christ suffers “for” us. I agree also that the Cross defines or shapes faith. But that means it shapes a movement toward an end or telos. But the Cross can’t be that end, not if Christ is risen. I think it would be extremely helpful to think through these questions in terms of ‘ends’ rather than of ‘centers’. Perhaps that needs to become an additional part of our series What is the Bible? But for now, ask yourself what the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ of creation is. Where’s it going? What divine reality fulfills it? I suggest that while the Cross defines the shape of the journey, it isn’t the end of the journey, and it would be worth exploring whether we ought to make that end the hermeneutical center of our faith and not any means by which we reach the end, however necessary those means may be.

Since I’m doing a poor job of articulating this, let me offer a couple of thoughts on Phil 3 and try to describe what I mean by making the Cross as means relative to ends achieved beyond resurrection. I’m not negating the revelatory value of the Cross or its value as a demonstration of love. I’m suggesting it’s not the center of the center. Phil 3.8-11 (vv. 10f here):

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcI’ll offer CWG as the backdrop for my thought here since it proposes an understanding of the Cross as a kind of suffering we can’t participate in because it is God suffering godforsakenness as the consequence of our sinful choices. Without question this is not a suffering we can participate in. It is suffering we’re saved from. Yet we see Paul wanting to “participate in Christ’s sufferings” and to “become like Christ in his death” (even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” Col 1.24).  These are curious things to say indeed if Paul believes the Cross is God suffering in our stead the godforsakenness we deserve.

I suggest that at the very least

…we understand the Cross not as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded (because it is a godforsakenness we are saved from) but as a kind of suffering and death we are saved in or through.

This difference in perspective is the kind of small difference between competing orientations that end up worlds apart the farther down the road one tracks their implications. I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in the worst the world can do to us, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence. But all this precludes the Cross’s being the place where Father, Son and Spirit are estranged from one another. On the contrary, it’s where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false and impotent precisely because they do not offer us a ‘way’, a suffering, we can participate in, a death to which we can conform. If Paul hopes to attain the resurrection on account of “becoming like Christ in his death” through “participating in his sufferings,” then Christ’s death can’t be the place where Father, Son and Spirit suffer godforsakenness in our stead.

This thought is found outside of Paul as well. Hebrews 13.13f:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Again, here the Cross represents sufferings we follow Christ into, “bearing the disgrace he bore,” hardly something we rejoice in being saved from. Mere verses prior to the call to follow Christ by bearing the disgrace he bore “outside the city” (a reference to the only ‘abandonment’ in view, viz., the abandonment of us by the world) we find this encouragement which precedes and introduces the whole passage:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

The Cross is where these words are proved true, not the one time they fail to be so. This is a Cross we can follow, suffering we can participate in, a death we can conform to, and in conforming to his death, a resurrection we can attain.

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8 comments on “If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

  1. Rob says:

    “[…] the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ express a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening); it is the God-Man dying ahead of us, showing us how to die, how life is found on the other side of experiencing the worst the world can do to you, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence.”

    That’s really well put, Tom.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Matt Wright says:

    Tom, I want to thank you for challenging me a little while back to fully think through this particular view of the Cross (as in, estrangement of Son from Father and Spirit) and it’s implications. I was ready to post my thoughts on how this view could in any way not be more efficacious than what you state above. In short, I don’t think there is. That said, I’d like your feedback on something I did kick around in my head for a bit:

    I think the estrangement view of the cross as stated in CWG could only be the case if in fact we are truly godforsaken here and now. In this scenario, Jesus would have to experience it if he is going to be our High Priest who can sympathize with us in every way, as Hebrews says. If that’s the case, then there is a need for Jesus to step into that same state, even if only momentarily, as someone on a rescue mission would need to enter into a captive’s same space in order to save the captive. Maybe you could even make a certain analogy to Michael Scofield in the “Prison Break” series, where he intentionally gets arrested to go to his brother’s prison and break him out, because he alone knows the way to do it.

    However, as tempting as it would be for some to adopt that mindset (and thereby perpetuate a PSA-type view that is so firmly entrenched), this still leaves us with the problem of Jesus suffering not truly because of our sin, but due to God’s abandonment in the midst of it. It makes much more sense to me that Jesus would suffer with us while remaining lovingly connected to the Father, so that he could take the full wages of sin (death) and defeat it to open a door for us to be reconciled to God. It would remind us that God truly is *with* us, in the middle of it all, and any godforsakenness we experience is because *we* have turned away rather than God. At any rate, I’d like to hear your thoughts on what I said above.

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    • Tom says:

      Thanks Matt.

      I agree. I’m feeling more and more that there is less and less to recommend Greg’s whole CWG thesis. That God is love – yes. That God is essentially non-violent in his intentions and actions – yes (though one has to define violence). That inspiration is a dialectic that accounts for why fallen ‘uninspired’ viewpoints make their way into Scripture – yes. But that might be the end of it. When it comes to those places where Greg wants to establish his own unique contribution (the hermeneutical role of the cruciform thesis based on the Cross as divine judgment executed through withdrawal and godforsakeness) – at that point I think it’s a train wreck. And in this most recent post I tried to give more reason why. Paul clearly views the sufferings of the Cross as ‘participable’ – the Cross offers us salvation through participation in its sufferings. But Greg can’t offer us THAT Cross.

      Matt: It makes much more sense to me that Jesus would suffer with us while remaining lovingly connected to the Father, so that he could take the full wages of sin (death) and defeat it to open a door for us to be reconciled to God. It would remind us that God truly is *with* us, in the middle of it all, and any godforsakenness we experience is because *we* have turned away rather than God.

      Tom: That’s basically my own view too, Matt, yeah.

      Liked by 1 person

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