Jesus re-creates humanity with a Cry

the-view-from-the-crossWatching the sunrise this morning on this Good Friday, I had a thought inspired by recent discussions of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Here’s the thought I had.

God creates ex nihilo or out of nothing. This ‘nothing’ isn’t a certain sort of something out of which God creates; we are not assembled into being from other more fundamental parts or created events. From the finite perspective of our conscious experience, this nothingness represents the Void whose absolute closure threatens to consume our present existence with final meaninglessness. The Void represents the nothingness from which God calls us to be. But it occasions a necessary and fundamental choice to relate to existence in one of two ways – either peacefully, giving our finitude to God in trust, or despairingly, anxiously, in the fragmenting narratives of self-assertion and fear.

What if we say that on the Cross, in Jesus’ Cry (“My God, My God, why?”), God is recreating humanity ex nihilo, that God, via Christ’s humanity (God’s own humanity), takes creation to the very edge of that nothingness from which we are called into being, and there humanity finally relates to the Void truthfully and peacefully?

Christ takes the essential question at the heart of the Cry (Ps 22) and submits himself to the Father as its answer. The Cry of Ps 22 is there not because Christ believes himself abandoned by God (the Psalm and gospels prevent such a conclusion) but because the humanity he is re-creating believes itself to be abandoned by God. The Cry becomes the point of departure, the basis upon which we can locate ourselves within the event of the Cross. It becomes the doorway through which we experience ourselves being re-created ex nihilo. There is a question in the Cry that is, after all, just the question that finitude must ask: Why this? Where is God in this? The Cry tells us that Jesus is standing at the very place before the Void that marks the spot of humanity’s despairing failure to trust God before the truth of its finitude and mortality, but that where we universally misrelate to this truth, Jesus surrenders himself peacefully and benevolently in trust to God.

Jesus asks our question (Why?), yes, and he asks it from the regions of our worst suffering, but he answers it differently. And the answer he gives is how and where he re-creates humanity ex nihilo. Why ex nihilo? Because the answer Jesus gives (that answer being “I am not alone, for my Father is with me” John 16.32-33) exceeds the resources of finitude. It’s truth is not derived from any created resource. Since creation is asking the question about itself, it cannot itself be the answer. The answer “I am not alone, my Father is with me” comes from the other side of the Void, i.e., from a transcendent and uncreated source.


The Crucifixion—Part 2

rutledgeI’m not going to attempt a review of Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion. I’m not capable of that. It’s not that one can’t summarize the heart of her project in a few paragraphs or a single post, but that would be like naming the peaks of a mountain range without mapping its descents and paths upwards. Rutledge’s book is a mountain range, captivating and inspiring (and, at times, concerning), and as thick a text of 600 pages of sincere, thoughtful reflection on the Cross as you will find anywhere. Even though I will describe points of disagreement, my disagreements in no way mean I’m finished reading and pondering this text. It’s the sort of work you return to over and over.

I hesitated to post disagreements when I attended more closely to the endorsements her book enjoys. Hauerwas, Fr Barron, Marilyn Adams, David Hart, and Robert Jenson, to name of few, all praise and endorse her work. So criticizing it, I thought, only runs the risk of turning out to be an embarrassing display of stupidity on my part. But since I write this blog as much for myself as for anyone else, perhaps it will help me clarify the issues and hopefully learn something in the process.

The Crucifixion divides into two parts. Part 1 describes the Crucifixion – its place of primacy at the center of the Christian story, the special nature of its suffering in Christ’s case (shame, ridicule, rejection, but more importantly godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction), and how the magnitude of this suffering corresponds to the gravity of sin and the depth of humanity’s spiritual predicament which Christ heals and puts right. Indeed, it is one of the several significant achievements of this book that it will not permit you to let go the relationship between these two: the magnitude of the sacrifice (nothing less than God estranged from God) on the one hand, and the severity of the predicament this sacrifice sets right on the other. Thus the key question for Rutledge: What does the method by which Jesus suffered tell us about the nature of our predicament? If God must suffer to heal and free us, how grave must be our sickness and enslavement? This question motivates Rutledge’s reflections from start to finish.

If we reason in this direction, Rutledge explains, we will be better guided to conclusions about what is actually happening on the Cross, and why it must happen as it did. The recurring refrain throughout is that ‘something truly is wrong with the world which must be put right’ (or “rectified”). The solution has to come on the level of the problem, on the stage of concrete material human existence and relations, and must as well be equal to the problem in magnitude. Thus, the godforsaken innocent Jesus on behalf of godforsaken guilty humanity. In conversation with Anselm, Rutledge awakens the sense of divine justice at work in the blessed exchange that occurs in and through the Cross on our behalf and at Christ’s expense. She’s concerned that too many Christians (I’m not sure who these are, she never identifies their representative voices) have effectively reduced Christianity to “forgiveness” or “repentance.” There is no appreciation for the depth and gravity of sin and its effects and no recognition of the cost justice requires to put things right. Her chapter on “The Question of Justice” explores why such reductions to forgiveness are completely inadequate. They’re inadequate because something is objectively wrong. Acquittal won’t do, Rutledge argues. That which is objectively wrong with the world must be rectified or put right. This involves a “proportionate justice.” Something of sufficient value is required to address the magnitude of our offense so that “justice can be seen to be done.” For Rutledge, justice is seen to be done in the descent of the Son of God into the utter dereliction of godforsakenness (which is the ‘just’ wrath of God as the natural consequence of our sin).

Part 2 unpacks this basic understanding of the Cross through a discussion of eight biblical motifs or themes, each motif shedding light on an aspect of the Cross as God’s putting right what is wrong. They are: Passover & Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom & redemption, the Great Assize [Trial], apocalyptic war (or Christus Victor), the descent into Hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Each motif could comprise a volume of its own, and you best put your exercise attitude on when you read Rutledge because each of these discussions is a serious work-out. What I appreciate about Rutledge is that she exercises not just the speculative, philosophical side of Christian thought (even if she often stops short of pursuing such questions), but also the practical, lived, socially dynamic dimensions of faith. She brings a preacher’s passion with her and there are gems throughout.

Rutledge has no intention of producing a defense of penal-substitution (at least not in any of its cruder, objectionable forms). When she discusses “substitution,” for example, it’s primarily to establish the presence of that motif in Scripture. The ‘idea’ is present, so there’s no dismissing it’s role in shaping our understanding. Something more than mere forgiveness is at work in securing our healing and freedom. But thought she doesn’t interpret substitution in terms of Jesus inserting himself between us and an angry God to save us from a cosmic tantrum, she does see Jesus (indeed, the Trinity) as inserting Jesus between a loving Father’s wrath and us who deserve that wrath. Be ready for a host of very fine distinctions, lots of appeals to mystery, and repeated dismissals of philosophical and metaphysical objections on the grounds that, as Rutledge reminds readers, she’s a preacher and pastor, not a metaphysician. Some of this is fair. Some of it you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Nor does Rutledge suppose the Cross changes God’s attitude toward us. God’s attitude is unchanging in its favor and love. She argues the nonviolent, loving, freely offered — and where you might be inclined to supply the word “forgiveness” next, Rutledge finishes it with rectifying what’s wrong. What talk of “wrath” is present is interpreted in terms of the just and natural consequences of our sin. The wrath we suffer is just our sin itself, its existential dimension as the anxiety and despair which guilt produces in us. She recalls Anselm’s definition of final wrath as “inconsolable need” (a definition I like very much), a state of spiritual dereliction or godforsakenness. This is the “curse” we are under. Christ redeems us by substituting himself on our behalf and in our place under this curse, experiencing the spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness we deserve. The problem here, as we’ll see, is that there is no natural means by which the innocent Jesus may be brought into an experience of wrath as such. So one ends up, despite assurances to the contrary, grounding Jesus godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction in a positive decree of the Father.

All the margins of my copy are marked up with a range of responses, from “Amen!” “Yes!” and “Preach it!” (chiefly at those places she disavows aspects of the penal-substitutionary understanding of Christ’s suffering) to “I don’t think so” and “This doesn’t work” (beside passages that portray salvation in terms that reduce the Cross, to my mind, to essentially the same sacrificial economy behind the cruder, more objectionable models of the penal-substitutionary positions she rejects). She offers an essentially penal, substitutionary view of the work of Christ without the especially unsavory claims that the Cross effects a change in God’s attitude toward us, makes it possible for God to forgive us, or that Christ satisfies an angry God bent on extracting his pound of flesh.


What I’d like to do here is describe a few of Rutledge’s positions which I struggle with and why I believe they undermine her claim to have secured a truly nonviolent view of the Cross.

First—the hermeneutical primacy of the Cross
This comes first in the book so I’ll begin here. At the end of Ch 1 (“The Primacy of the Cross”), Rutledge summarizes:

“…the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.”

This seems obviously mistaken. We have no access to the Cross apart from the resurrection, no pre-resurrection accounts of the Cross that establish its meaning and significance (apart from Jesus’ own statements about his cross, and they incline against Rutledge’s view, as we’ll see below). The gospels themselves are written after the fact and reflect a post-resurrection perspective on the significance of the Cross. There is simply no way conceptually to set the resurrection aside while one construes the meaning and significance of the Cross on other grounds which then become the basis for giving the resurrection its true significance. All the descriptions and motifs employed to proclaim the Cross are by definition already shaped by the resurrection. In the end, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his cross means.

I do not mean to suggest that the Resurrection ‘makes it all better’, or wipes away the gravity of the violence, or lessens the pain endured, or reduces the Cross effectively to the status of an existential speed-bump Christ cruises over happily on the way to resurrection. After all, there is also no resurrection without crucifixion. The resurrected one is the crucified Christ. (Thank you James Alison.) There’s no celebrating the life of the Risen One without entering into his suffering. However, the whole attempt to establish the primacy of the Cross by determining its meaning and then establishing the significance of other events, like the resurrection, relative to this meaning is a failed project from the start. Allow me to recall something from a previous post:

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically and one.

vanghohWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth), but to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood…There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross independent of all other contributions…There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives. But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the lens of the resurrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus.

Second—the Cry of Dereliction
The next few points of this post describe perhaps the most fundamental disagreement I have with Rutledge’s book, assuming I’m understanding her understanding of what actually constitutes Christ’s suffering. Rutledge’s understanding of the Cry is part and parcel of her understanding of 2Cor 5.21 (God make the innocent Jesus “to become sin”) and Gal. 3.13 (Jesus “became a curse”). Her view appears to be that Christ must suffer, not just “as a consequence of” our sin, but actually suffer “the consequence of” our sin, and this consequence is the wrath of God (understood as inconsolable need, viz., the anxiety and existential despair of estrangement from God). She has profound things to say about the deconstructing, dehumanizing design of Roman crucifixion and about the abiding gracious and loving disposition God always has for us. But, she notes (“Rejection and Dereliction”), the Cry demonstrates “the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition,” that Jesus “embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space.” Christ “is suffering the curse and the defilement that would have fallen upon them—that is, upon us.” “God was separated from God—while still remaining God.” Jesus was “utterly cut off from his powers, from his Father, from any hope of redemption or victory” and therefore “suffered what the book of Revelation calls the ‘second death’…as our substitute.” This is an “interposition of the Son between human beings as the curse of God upon sin” where Jesus “exchanged God for Godlessness” and was made to be sin. “Does this mean that Jesus became his own Enemy?,” she asks “It would seem so.” Jesus entered into our condition as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2).

I should add that Rutledge does say that “for Paul, it is not God, but the curse of the law that condemned Jesus.” But I’m unable to do the math. Exactly how does “the Law” bring Jesus into an experience of spiritual dereliction and estrangement from God? But that the Law and “not God” condemns may be irrelevant. Rutledge adds:

There is considerable disagreement among theologians as to whether God actually forsook Jesus or not. Moltmann says yes, God forsook God – though he goes to great lengths to avoid splitting the Trinity or implying that God denies his own nature.

Rutledge appears to agree, “Moltmann’s argument is subtle and seeks to avoid the obvious pitfalls.” The point, she adds, is that “in the Godforsakeness of Jesus, God was involved.”

Readers here may have grown tired of my preoccupation with the Cry of Dereliction, but it really does get at the heart of what for many of us separates violent from nonviolent understandings of the Cross. I’ve argued at some length elsewhere that this narrative of godforsakenness is in fact part of the mythology of sacred violence God redeems us from.


It is of more than academic interest whether or not creation is “set right” by God surrendering the innocent Jesus to a state of spiritual dereliction and absurdity or by God’s allowing us, in the absurdity of our spiritual dereliction, to exhaust every resource of religious violence against Jesus.

Recall Jesus’ instructions the night before he died. He knows he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples. He does not believe, however, that his Father will leave him alone – on any level. Jn 16.31-33 is explicit:

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Besides declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus intends his disciples to understand from his suffering that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

If one wonders where the violence is in the claim that Jesus “dies the second death” and suffers the despair of godforsakenness, one can approach an answer by asking how an absolutely innocent person can be brought into such an experience. More specifically, by what means is the innocent Jesus brought into an experience of the spiritual dereliction of being estranged from God? Who brings him into this experience? It can’t be any human being. Rutledge suggests that it is simply the Law, not God, that condemns. But how is ‘the Law’ to accomplish the sentence? It should be clear that only God can accomplish such a thing, perhaps by “giving Jesus over” to dereliction, or perhaps the Father “withdraws” himself from Jesus, removing from him that filial affection and affirmation of the Spirit that grounded Jesus very identity. But by whatever means, we’re describing a state of dereliction that only God can effectively accomplish. Jesus cannot bring it upon himself as each of does by sinful misrelation. It is only by an act of violence that an absolutely innocent man can be brought by God into the experience of godforsakenness which is God’s wrath.

Does it help to say that Father, Son and Spirit are in agreement that Jesus should suffer this particular form of abandonment? Does this suffice to establish the nonviolence of such a view? I don’t see how. What would a trinitarian agreement to plunge Jesus into into true spiritual dereliction even look like, and would it be sufficient at this point to appeal to mystery? Perhaps one only means that Father and Spirit relate to Jesus as if he was guilty while knowing his innocence. But that would reduce the very means by which we are saved to God’s relating to Jesus outside the truth of his innocence. We’d be saved by a kind of falsehood, and surely it is the truth (and God’s relating to Jesus within the truth of his innocence) that saves us.

We want instead to say (as Rutledge herself occasionally says) God stands on the side of the victim. We already noted Jesus’ belief that though all would leave and forsaken him, his Father would be with him. Consider also Jesus’ explicit denial (Jn 14.28-31, esp. 30b-31) that the prince of this world had any hold over him. “He comes,” Jesus assured his disciples, “so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” Are we disagreeing with Jesus over the question of whether he suffered estrangement and godforsakenness? Jesus assures us no such thing would occur and in fact offers what and how he suffers as a model of hope and confident for his disciples to participate in. To the extent we describe Christ’s sufferings as imparticipable by us, we make the Cross of Christ to be something it’s not.

What of 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13? Must these not be read as describing just such a state of accursed godforsakenness? As we said earlier:

We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). How can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that divine justice doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes [our] curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God; not because we’re right in believing God curses the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

Regarding 2Cor 5.21, note the entire passage. If Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place. And notice too that it is God (not the Law) who “makes Jesus to become sin.” This can only refer to God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences.

Part 3 to come, hopefully.

Getting to know Rene Girard

Girard, Rene

There are a few audio/video resources I repeatedly benefit from in trying to better understand Girard’s thought, besides Girard’s books of course. Please read the man himself. Girard noted (in the second interview I list below) that there was a time, before Girard established himself, when people actually read him but none quoted him. Today it seems that since his views are fashionable, people quote him who don’t actually read him. But if you’re reading the man himself, then I suggest a few other helpful resources.



Caught in the act of atonement

fordgeMy thanks to Fr Aidan for sharing a wonderful article by Gerhard Forde (d. 2005) of Lutheran Seminary (St. Paul) with me this morning. The article, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ” (World in World 3/1 1983), is a short but very helpful meditation on the Cross, certainly relevant to my reading through Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. I’m reluctant to confess it, but ten minutes of Forde was more refreshing, freeing, and enlightening than the whole mountain of atonement monographs I’ve been sifting through for weeks. Parts of Forde’s piece were so simply helpful and clarifying, I wanted to share some of it. For those of you familiar with Girard, you’ll see the compatibility.

After summarizing the ‘objective’ vs ‘subjective’ views of the atonement, along with the insights of the Christus Victor model, he recommends that we sidestep these theories and deal with the “brute facts” as we observe them “bottom up.” He writes:

If we are to get anywhere with these questions today, we shall have to begin by paying closer attention to the “brute facts” of the case, looking at the actual events as they have been mediated to us in the narrative itself to see what we can make of them. Perhaps this is to say, to use a distinction employed for the person of Christ, we should begin our consideration of the work of Christ “from below” (from our point of view) as much as possible before we proceed to discuss it “from above” (from “God’s point of view”) – realizing the problematic nature of such distinctions. The reason for insisting on such a beginning is not to invest theological capital in the distinctions as such, but simply to suggest that we have tended in the past to hurry by what actually happened here “below,” with us and to us, to get to the theory, the perspective “from above.” The theory has overrun the event. If we begin “from below” perhaps the impact of the work of Christ will emerge more naturally and directly from the narrative itself and we will find ourselves “caught in the act” in more ways than one: caught at it and at the same time caught by it. If we can begin in this fashion we might be better prepared, I think, to get some glimpses “from above,” some indications (a posteriori, of course!) of why God could not or at least would not do it any other way.

Why could not God just up and forgive? Let us start there. If we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual events themselves, the “brute facts” as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that…

Why was Jesus killed? It would seem from the actual narrative that we should be much more careful about saying that Jesus had to die because God, at the outset, was angry with us. There is indeed a sense in which we must say that Christ’s work is to “satisfy” the divine wrath. But it is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God’s honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be “satisfied” before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37) We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the “drama” in favor of the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, “We has met the enemy and they is us!” We did it…

But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of “self-defense.” Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. It is an act, not an idea. That is his “work.” That is the New Testament. He came to do “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his “heaven,” but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter—especially if it is the absolutely free and unconditional having mercy and forgiving of the sovereign God who ups and has mercy on whom he will have mercy! How can one actually do that here? How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just given unconditionally? The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort and just blows away our protests by saying, “They that are whole need not a physician. But they that are sick”? Actually doing it, giving it unconditionally just seems to us terribly reckless and dangerous. It shatters the “order” by which we must run things here.

We should make no mistake about it. One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God’s name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here. So either Jesus must go or we must. But how can we—mere dying beings—surrender all our plans and gains to him? So Jesus is “wasted” as an intruder. He is crucified between two other rebels against the order of the age, a thief and an insurrectionist. But Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness. He has the crazy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his “Kingdom” are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make them new and pure and whole and won’t ultimately hurt them at all. He seems to think that there actually is “a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God”! In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us. To consent to that would mean (just as he said) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded. So he must go. It is a matter of self-defense.

If we can approach the work of Christ in some such fashion “from below,” perhaps we can begin to see that it is a matter of being caught in the act—caught, in the first place, in the act of being ourselves, our “old” selves. God is not the obstacle to reconciliation, we are. Those who advocated the “subjective” view of the atonement were at least right in that, I expect. God is, indeed, sheer unconditional love. They were wrong, however, in thinking that we would in any way be open to one who actually came to do that among us. Consequently, the idea that Christ’s work is to effect a mere alteration in the “subject” by the example of his dedication is just another defense mechanism against the act, the doing of the divine love. It is translated into an idea or an ideal which serves ultimately just to reinforce the way we run things. The fact that we had to kill the Jesus who came to forgive exposes us for who we are. No mere subjective alteration will do for the likes of us. If we are to be saved by him, we must somehow be ready to receive what it is he comes to give. But that will take some dying. And that is the point. Not only are we caught in the act; we will have to be caught by the act.

But why then must Jesus die? Bearing in mind that this “must” is always a posteriori, not a priori, not an abstract, logical “must” determined beforehand but one which flows out of what the act itself accomplishes, perhaps we can say something about how it might look “from God’s point of view.” If what we have been saying about the murder of Jesus by us is at all the case, then God’s “problem” comes more immediately into view. God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied but rather that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he intends. As we can see from Jesus, God’s problem is how actually to have mercy on a world which will not have it. The question for God is whether he can really succeed in getting through to a people which likes the idea of forgiveness but doesn’t want an actual forgiver, a world which turns everything God purposes to do into a theory with which to protect itself from him. God’s problem is just how actually to have mercy, how to get through to us.

If that is the case, then at least a couple of considerations follow. As long as God is not “satisfied,” we exist under his “wrath.” But he is not satisfied because we will not let him be who he wants to be: the one who actually forgives, does it unconditionally, has mercy on whom he will have mercy. His wrath is therefore his “jealousy,” the obverse side of his intention to have mercy, to be who he will be. We are under his wrath not because of something so abstract as his “honor” or his “justice” to which “payment” must be made, but because we will not let him be who he will be for us: unconditional love and mercy.

The second consideration is that if this is the problem, God can do nothing about it in the abstract. Here is at least the beginning of the answer, it would seem, to why God could not do it in any other way. He cannot have mercy on us in the abstract. As abstraction he is always a terror to us, hidden, wrathful. The idea that he has mercy on whom he will have mercy is, as idea, the most frightening thing of all. We may twist and turn to change the idea, but all we will come up with then is that he has mercy on those who fulfill the necessary requirements. We just go out of the frying pan into the fire. The problem is simply that as abstraction God is absent from us and we are inexorably “under wrath.” Even God can do nothing about that—except to come to us. If the problem is absence, the only solution is presence. The only solution to the terror of the idea of one who has mercy on whom he will have mercy is actually to come and have mercy. The act must actually be done. The only solution to the problem of the absolute, we might say, is actual absolution!…

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. Or we can put it another way. Jesus came to forgive sin unconditionally for God. Our sin, our unbelief, consists precisely in the fact that we cannot and will not tolerate such forgiveness.

A participable cross


This should perhaps be entitled The Crucifixion—Part 2 as a reflection upon Fleming Rutledge’s demanding, and rewarding, book on the Cross. In a previous post I claimed that ‘if you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross.” It was a question I asked against the backdrop of readings of the Cross that construe it as a place of incommunicable suffering, a place where God suffers godforsakenness, where he pours out upon Jesus the wrath we deserve. There are good reasons for thinking this is not what is transpiring on the Cross, and one reason, I argued, was that if the Cross is where God abandons Christ to godforsakenness, if Jesus suffers a wrath we deserve “instead of us,” it becomes impossible to see the Cross as something Christians are to participate in and be united to.

Paul (Phil 3.8-11) wants to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death,” even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1.24), a desire particularly incomprehensible if Paul believes the Cross in substitutionary terms, as least as I’m familiar with those terms. The author of Hebrews (Heb 13.13) instructs us to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore…for I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The logic of dependent clause should shock us at least little: Go join Christ on the Cross “for God will never leave you nor forsake you.” For the same reason already noted this too becomes an impossible instruction to follow. If the Cross is where godforsakenness and estrangement are borne by God on our behalf, viz., so that we don’t have to bear these, then precisely what are we bearing or participating in when we join Christ on the Cross? More strangely, Hebrews instructs believers to join Christ on the Cross with a comforting assurance (“I will never leave or forsake you”) the denial of which substitutionary models of the Cross make by supposing Christ is in fact godforsaken and estranged.

Fleming’s book proceeds with a key question: What sort of predicament must you and I be in that we should require the crucifixion of God? She suggests that the severity of the Cross requires us to posit a human predicament equally severe. That’s certainly a necessary question. Another question of equal consequence would be this: What really transpires on the Cross if the gospel compels us to join Christ on the Cross, if the salvation it extends becomes ours through participating in its sufferings? I don’t see Rutledge, or Hart for that matter, exploring the biblical call to participate in Christ’s suffering as a key to understanding that suffering. Though Rutledge briefly discusses the Rom 6 passage I’ll refer to below, as well as Heb 13.13, she doesn’t ask this question.

If we are to participate in Christ’s sufferings, become like him in his death, and bear the disgrace he bore, then it has to be the case that those sufferings are communicable, participable. But if Christ bears a divine judgment instead of us, if he suffers the dereliction of godforsakenness and estrangement as wrath – i.e., if he suffers the fate we are saved from – then there’s nothing to participate in. We’re can at best be thankful spectators. I may simply be way off in my thinking, but I suspect more work needs to be done to see if there’s a way sensibly to construe the Cross both as Christ substituted in our place and as him suffering as our place.

That said, let me quote from Mark Heim again (Saved From Sacrifice, 229f) because he makes the same point from a passages that I previously overlooked: Rom 6.3-5.

Baptized into His DeathMichelangelo,_Crucifix
Paul says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).

Baptism is the ritual entry into the Christian community. This initiation is an act of identification with Christ and his death as an unjust scapegoated victim. It was common for initiations in the ancient world to involve sacrifice and bloodshed. Baptism does not. Consistent with belief in the cross as a sacrifice to end sacrifice, and a death “once for all,” each baptized person enters into what is in effect a reversed sacrificed, looking not to share in the benefits of an offered victim but to walk in the newness of life of one who overcame scapegoating. The baptized are to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, participating in that new creation. Peter preaches in Acts that when God raised up Jesus, he sent him “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). This bears on our peculiar individual sins, but certainly it applies with special force to our shared, collective wicked ways.

We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors. In this act we step into the place of the sacrificed one, at the same time identifying with Christ and with every other member of this new community, who has likewise been “buried with Christ…”

If baptism is a dramatic identification with Jesus’ death, it throws us back to the tension we have repeatedly discussed. Is this an identification with the sacrificial intent of those who persecuted Jesus or with the parallel but opposite divine purpose to end sacrifice? The describe of the new life that is to follow on baptism clearly opts for the latter. Sacrificial language itself is redefined to this end.


Paul in Rom 6 makes essentially the same point he makes in Phil 3 and Col 1. The Cross (never without the resurrection – Rom 6) names the mode of our participation in Christ. We participate in his suffering, become like him in his death, and now in the language of Rom 6 “are untied with him” in his death, “buried with him,” etc. So at the very least, if we define the Cross as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there a judgment we deserve but are freed from, have we not placed the Cross out of the reach of participation? It would seem so.

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’ may expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening — and I haven’t seen ‘substitution’ described in that sense anywhere), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in a fallen world, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation. So instead of being a place defined by godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we can conform.

The Crucifixion—Part 1

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI found myself reading through portions of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion this week after reading it (or did it read me?) last year. It’s a dense and beautiful work that left me feeling the whole work would be diminished if a single phrase were omitted. It reveals a lifetime of intense reflection and pastoral sensibility and will I hope occupy my for as long.

That said, there are a few unpleasant surprises. There is some straw at the heart of her objection to a so-called “forgiveness is enough” reading of the Cross. I don’t anyone is ever guilty of actually believing that forgiveness, and forgiveness alone, is enough and that this explains the Cross. Her dismissal of Girard is also odd. She admits to having never read him and to relying on the criticism of others. That would be understandable if it were somebody like me she was disagreeing with. But it cannot succeed in the case of Girard. She also claims that both Girard and his interpreter James Alison too narrowly interpret the Cross as delivering victims while failing to recognize that victimizers are also in need of deliverance. This is a surprising misunderstanding of both Girard and Alison, since both (Alison at some length) explicitly address how the Cross embraces victimizers as well. I hope to get around to these points, and to other wonderful aspects of her book, in a later post.

What I’d like to do here is share a portion of David Hart’s reflections on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt,” Pro Ecclesia 7.3). I share it here because Rutledge appeals to Hart’s appreciation for Anselm. I suppose I’ve done to Anselm what I just complained Rutledge does to Girard – dismiss him based on what others say. But I want to thank both Hart and Rutledge for encouraging me to rethink Anselm. Hart writes:

Nor indeed is there any suggestion made in the Cur Deus Homo that God is appeased by the “penal” death of Christ (Harnack is quite right about this, though disturbingly wrong about its implications). Anselm certainly depicts Christ’s sacrifice as an offering that, in the end, “secures” forgiveness by satisfying the demands of divine righteousness, on our behalf; but, then, how far does his version of the story of salvation actually differ on this matter from its more remote precursors? When Lossky uses Athanasius to call attention to the divergence of Anselm’s model from its patristic predecessors, even though he knows that many of the themes of the Cur Deus Homo are already to be found in De Incarnatione, there is some slight irony, it must be said. At one juncture in De Incarnatione, Athanasius, lamenting the loss of humanity’s original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s agathotes (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance and execution of his twin decrees that, on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first, guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice. The hold death had upon us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false; but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were he to let his handiwork come to nothing. Nor could God simply accept our repentance as just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature. In his body, then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law, and offers satisfaction for our debt. Already present in Athanasius’s account is the very story whose inner shape Anselm will, in a moment of intense critical reflection, attempt to grasp as necessity. Already, in Athanasius’s theology, one finds the language of punishment used, but subordinate to the narrative of complete and unmerited forgiveness, and the language of law employed to describe the depths of an infinite mercy. As it is with Athanasius, so it is with Anselm. Far from an arbitrary arrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation, by accomplishing on our behalf what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust means, could never otherwise have been brought to pass.


God’s order is preserved through his own assumption of the conditions of estrangement; his mercy is imparted in the acceptance of Christ’s voluntary death; the highest law of God’s inviolable justice is boundless mercy; God’s sovereignty necessitates his condescension; the goodness that condemns the sinner requires that sin be forgiven. This is not because Anselm sees God as divided against himself: rather, he has come to see that Christ’s sacrifice is ultimately not an economic gesture (meant to insure the stability of a universe founded upon unyielding laws of equity and retribution), but belongs instead to the infinite motion of God’s love, in which justice and mercy are one and can never be divided one from the other; he has recognized Christ’s act as an infinite motion towards the Father, belonging to the mystery of the Trinity, simply surpassing all the arrangements of debt and violence by which a sinful humanity seeks to calculate its “justice.” Consequently, the only “necessity” Anselm demonstrates in the drama of salvation is an inward intelligibility to the mind grasped by faith. And indeed, in the end, Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: that of recapitulation. Granted, he rejects simple typological or aesthetic recapitulation, the correspondence of motifs shared between the narratives of the first and last Adam, but he is still concerned with recapitulation in essentially the same sense as is Irenaeus: Christ takes up the human story and tells it correctly, by giving the correct answer to God’s summons; in his life and death he renarrates humanity according to its true pattern of loving obedience, humility, and charity, thus showing all human stories of righteousness, honor, and justice to be tales of violence, falsehood, and death; and in allowing all of humanity to be resituated through his death within the retelling of their story, Christ restores them to communion with the God of infinite love who created them for his pleasure. And when Christ recapitulates humanity, he shows the gravity and terror inherent in posing his form over against the violence of the world of sin; he “satisfies” all the requirements of that form by living out his obedience to the Father under the conditions imposed by a sinful order of power, which conditions bring about his death. It must not be overlooked that for Anselm it is not Christ’s suffering as such that is redemptive (the suffering merely repeats sin’s endlessly repeated and essential gesture), but rather his innocence; he recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings for those to whom death is condign. Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds a penal logic of atonement, the idea of sacrificial penance is subverted from within: as Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange, but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift, and must be seen as such: a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, and at a price that we, in our sin, imposed upon him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace. And simply by continuing to be the God he is, and through the sheer “redundancy” of the good that flows from the infinite gesture of his love — which is a generosity in excess of all calculable economy — God undoes the sacrificial logic of our bondage; his gift remains a gift to the end, despite all our efforts to convert it into debt. This is the unanticipated grace of Easter. Whether one chooses, of course, to follow Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and see the redundancy of Christ’s merit, inasmuch as it avails for salvation, as an infinite multiplication of debt depends upon one’s prejudices. As for Anselm, though, the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ’s paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, disobedience, injustice, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm’s account, because both belong already to the giving of this gift:

The mercy of God, which seemed to you to be lost when we were considering God’s justice and humanity’s sin, we find now to be so great and so in accord with justice, that neither a greater nor a more just can be thought. For what possibly could be understood to be more merciful than that God the Father should say to the sinner — damned to eternal torment and having no means whereby to redeem himself — “Take my Only-begotten and offer him for yourself”; and that the Son himself should say, “Take me and redeem yourself”? For thus they speak, when they call us and lead us to Christian faith. What indeed were more just, than that he — to whom is given a price exceeding every debt, if only given with the love which he is truly owed — should put aside every debt?


Now, for a somewhat contrary take on Anselm, see Mark Heim’s thoughts here. Heim largely agrees with these positive features of Anselm’s work. But, if you’ll check out this link to Heim, you’ll see where he thinks Anselm makes an important mistake.

It’s so interesting to stand between Heim and Hart on Cur Deus Homo because when you take Anselm out of equation altogether and simply compare the statements each makes about what is transpiring on the Cross (the absence of any violence in God, the falsehood of the notion that Christ’s suffering exhausts some infinite balance of suffering that we deserve, the unchanging nature of God’s forgiving attitude, the justice and goodness of love’s submitting to what our notion of justice does to Jesus), they’re in agreement.

I particularly like the ‘narrative’ shape of Hart’s explanation. Christ takes up “the human story and tells it correctly.” He “renarrates humanity” according to its true pattern. The Cross is what we do to this story. But Christ “resituates” all humanity “within the retelling of their story.” The deliverance wrought by Christ on our behalf is the revealing of humanity’s true story within the false narratives that enslave us. Yes, that true story has to be told in terms of the entirety of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, but the death must be such that it delivers the new and true story within the very text of our false narratives. Christ’s own capacities for meaning-making have to embrace the depths of the human predicament. I have Marilyn McCord Adams (Christ & Horrors) in mind here; she writes, “By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.”

I’ll have to return to this in a second post. I’ll just say here that what is objectionable (not that Rutledge believes this – but neither did Girard and neither does Alison, hence her curious disagreement with them) is the notion, which can be heard in pulpits every on Sundays, that someone has to die for God to forgive us. This is a mistake, and more egregious, I should think, than any claim that Christianity is reducible to forgiveness (which I don’t believe anyone believes) because plenty of Christians actually do believe the Cross makes it possible for God to forgive us. On the contrary, however, it is because God forgives us and wishes us to know and live in the truth of this that there even is a Cross. The Cross condemns all crosses, for all God gives (love, acceptance, forgiveness) is ours antecedent to the Cross. The Cross, then, is not the price God requires to extend these to us, it is the price we require to believe they are freely given.

Christ—fangzhipin or fuzhipin of God?


Please enjoy this very interesting description of Eastern (Japanese) aesthetics by Byung-Chul Han (“The Copy is the Original“). I’d love to hear David Bentley Hart reflect on how this different aesthetic sensibility (as transcendental as is our aesthetic appetite here in the West yet contrary in how it manages and propagates its values) would express core Christian beliefs like the Trinity (Father as the ‘original’, the Logos as the ‘image’, etc.), Incarnation, etc. After reading this I wondered how beholden to a Western aesthetic palate Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite: An Aesthetics of Christian Truth, might be. What sort of “aesthetics of Christian truth” would a thoroughly Eastern/Japanese aesthetic palate produce? Here’s just a sampling. You’ll have to digest the whole piece to appreciate my question: Is Christ the fangzhipin (仿製品) or fuzhipin (複製品) of God? In addition, which are we?

In 1956, an exhibition of masterpieces of Chinese art took place in the museum of Asian art in Paris, the Musée Cernuschi. It soon emerged that these pictures were, in fact, forgeries. In this case, the sensitive issue was that the forger was none other than the most famous Chinese painter of the 20th century, Chang Dai-chien, whose works were being exhibited simultaneously at the Musée d’Art Moderne. He was considered the Pablo Picasso of China. And his meeting with Picasso that same year was celebrated as a summit between the masters of Western and Eastern art. Once it became known that the old masterpieces were his forgeries, the Western world regarded him as a mere fraud. Yet for Chang himself, they were anything but forgeries. In any case, most of these old pictures were no mere copies, but rather replicas of lost paintings that were known only from written descriptions…

In the West, when monuments are restored, old traces are often particularly highlighted. Original elements are treated like relics. The Far East is not familiar with this cult of the original. It has developed a completely different technique of preservation that might be more effective than conservation or restoration. This takes place through continual reproduction. This technique completely abolishes the difference between original and replica. We might also say that originals preserve themselves through copies. Nature provides the model. The organism also renews itself through continual cell-replacement. After a certain period of time, the organism is a replica of itself. The old cells are simply replaced by new cell material. In this case, the question of an original does not arise. The old dies off and is replaced by the new. Identity and renewal are not mutually exclusive. In a culture where continual reproduction represents a technique for conservation and preservation, replicas are anything but mere copies.