My 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.