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.

Brief thoughts on penal substitution

IMG_5205edited-720x380Dwayne recently shared a Tom Wright piece with me in which Wright addresses the shades of meaning and confusion over ‘penal substitution’. While Wright considers it an obvious misappropriation of the concepts ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ to understand them as imagining Jesus to come between God and humanity to save the later from the former by placating the anger of the former, he doesn’t want to reject biblical talk of divine wrath and judgment and Christ’s role in expressing and addressing such judgment. Write says:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates – yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

There’s a prevailing difference in definitions that plagues disagreements over penal substitution. There are those who define “penal” as merely punitive and thus excluding any wider redemptive intention. A ‘penal’ act is a ‘punitive’ act – pure and simple – a ‘getting even with’ which as such is incompatible with acts that are redemptive and healing in their intention. But not everybody defines ‘penal’ that way. Those who take a wider view on what ‘penal’ might mean (as expressive of loving intentions) seem to say that God’s response to or judgment of evil is ‘penal’ in the sense that it is designed to expose evil as evil, to render its truth plain(er) through bringing persons into an experience of evil as evil, but the purpose of the act does not terminate in this exposition. It terminates in the redemption of those caught in the grip of evil. So then, God wills that those who reject him experience what that rejection is like. I can’t disagree with this, so long as one understands this is the natural and necessary consequence of God’s willing himself as our highest good. To desire something else for those who reject him would be less than loving of God.

But there’s a fine line between this and other statements that posit a competition between ‘love’ and ‘judgment’, and even Wright appears to locate ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ on contrary but inseparable poles of a divine reality, a reality that is ‘now doing this’ (which we call loving a person) and ‘now doing that’ (which we call judging a person). This distinction can be as problematic as reducing judgment to merely punitive terms. Perhaps the line between the two is the difference between organic/natural judgment (like the Orthodox espouse) and imagining God to take more positive actions that are willed by him “in addition to” or “over and against” willing the highest good of those judged. In other words, if ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ compete with the highest good of those judged, then we have problems. But the terms may, as terms, if carefully qualified, express the truth of God pursuing the highest good of a fallen world. ‘Substitution’ may simply describe the Cross in the sense that Christ volunteers to “step into” (taking our place in) our scapegoating mechanism, substituting himself for us in that violence in a representative mode, not so that God can do to Jesus what God in his holiness must do to sinners (which is how I’m reading Wright and Greg), but so that God can endure our doing to him what we do to other innocent victims, and thereby demonstrate how unlike he is from our concepts of justice and peace. (Brad Jersak, though, prefers “identification” to “substitution” and this may better express the truth of what happens on the Cross.)

This love enduring our violence is God’s judgment upon (his estimate, verdict, or opinion of) evil. Where any mind perceives a measure of the depth of God’s abiding, loving beatitude and peace, it comes into an experience of judgment. Its privation is revealed or exposed. It suffers that revelation, but it suffers nothing other than God in and as the undiminished delight that values and loves the world and whose delight is the highest good of creatures. God takes no action ‘in addition to’ his loving us to judge sin, no positive judgment that is the polar counterpart to his actually loving us (even if that judgment is inseparable from God’s love as south pole is contrary to but inseparable from the north pole). I think a big part of Wright’s and Greg’s problem here is that they mistakenly view the sheer, undisturbed delight of triune love to be indifferent to evil if all it is is delight. They imagine God has to suffer some internal diminishment (Wright’s “hatred”) over and against divine beatitude or else God is “indifferent” to evil. But perhaps they assume this because that’s how they feel about evil – i.e., joy and delight are not motivation enough to oppose evil and act in the world for its healing and salvation. One has to be disturbed out of the complacency of happiness and act because one “hates” the wrong one acts to correct.

This is wrongheaded in our view. While Wright rightly objects to crude, competitive notions of justice and love that get expressed in versions of ‘penal substitution’ which view Jesus as saving us from God by placating his rage, Wright (and Boyd with him, I think) doesn’t entirely escape a competitive polarizing of ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ when he suggests that God must be thought of as “hating, yes hating” evil. Exactly what kind of change would that entail in God over and against his loving people and being the life which is the end of all things? Why cannot an undisturbed peace and beatitude be its own motivation to pursue the highest good of all things? And why cannot this beatitude itself be experienced as painful torture for those who don’t love it? Just think of how miserable an angry person is around happy people precisely because they’re happy.

Happy people don’t help miserable people by hating their misery. They help them by being happy.

Certainly God cannot will our highest good in him and do nothing to address our violence or save us from its privating consequences. Wright admits to directing his criticism against viewing God as “indifferent” to sin and evil. The problem with Wright’s criticism is that he feels divine indifference is only avoided if God “hates” something, if he is prompted to act through feeling something relative to evil over and against being the infinite beatitude and peace which is his being and existence to begin with. Beatitude and peace aren’t enough. This bring to mind comments I earlier made on the question of divine motivation and indifference in the face of a violent/sinful world:

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf, or additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

Am I suggesting God is, in some sense, indifferent to evil? Yes. But everybody who thinks God exists necessarily has to concede this much. God is ontologically indifferent to evil if it’s the case that evil is a privatio boni (privation of the good), indifferent to evil in the sense ‘being’ is indifferent to ‘non-being’. But this indifference is not a self-absorbed lack of passion or concern for the well-being of others. It just is the well-being of others. But it is not indifferent in the sense that it fails on any level to be and to pursue the highest well-being of all things in him.

Can “penal” and “substitution” be helpfully employed at all? My own feeling is it would require more qualification than its worth. Wright feels that if the phrase is not used, however qualified, we end up embracing an “indifferent” God. That seems hardly the case to me. But I think in the end it’s unhelpful to try to move a conversation forward by reducing positions to particular labels.

Face to face with Greg

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Many thanks to Greg Boyd for taking time to respond (his Part 1 and Part 2) to my comments (Parts 1-4) reviewing aspects of his new Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I went on to post some relevant follow-ups as well:

● How Jesus viewed his cross
● My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?
● Saved by joy

Our blog here occupies a very quiet place on the edge of the edge of the blogging world, so it’s nice to have Greg engage me over at ReKnew in a response to my review. I know he’s busy and I appreciate the effort. Several of my comments (together with, I suspect, the prolonged nature of our objection to key aspects of Greg’s theology) seem to have gotten under Greg’s skin. Maybe not, but if they have, then I hope I can bring some clarity to our differences. I won’t take up each point in his responses, but there are a few points I should comment on for clarity’s sake.

First–that I attack Greg’s integrity.
Greg senses that I’ve leveled an ad hominem attack on him by questioning his integrity regarding his use of (his) Trinity & Process (T&P) in support of claims he makes in CWG when the supporting arguments in T&P are positions Greg no longer himself holds. I believe I said this seemed to be an issue of academic integrity, and I went on to explain that what I had in mind was what I understood to be a standard of good scholarship, namely, that when a recognized scholar departs significantly from his own published work, some account/defense of the reasons for the change in mind is expected. I haven’t suggested Greg knowingly plotted to deceive readers. I’m just saying that there’s a level of explanation missing from Greg’s ongoing work relative to his earlier work in T&P that I understand to be a part of good scholarship. It is a bit surprising also to hear someone of Greg’s recognition admit that it wouldn’t matter what the philosophical arguments were in support of older positions he no longer holds because utter philosophical nonsense would be “a small price to pay.” Do I criticize this? Well, yes. I don’t mean thereby to attack Greg’s faith, character or sincerity. It’s just my understanding of a canon of scholarship that includes managing one’s intellectual journey a bit differently. If I’m wrong about what makes for good, responsible scholarship, more’s the pity.

I do take it to be a given (well-documented here) that Greg’s present views are incompatible with convictions at the core of T&P – namely, the abiding nature of God’s essential triune ‘experience’. If Greg really thinks there’s no significant change in his thought relative to this core and he’s not interested in arguments to the contrary, well, so be it. But if he is ever interested in batting those questions about, I’d be happy to pitch him a few.

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Second—not defining ‘violence’.
Regarding Greg’s not defining ‘violence’, he decided against it. I get that. My point in bringing it up was that much of the ongoing conversation (pro and con) regarding CWG turns precisely on what one thinks goes into making a thought, intention, or act ‘violent’. It would surely help if Greg (and others) would be explicit. Take Bruxy Cavey, for example. At a recent Woodland Hills Church CWG Q&A session, Greg was somewhat surprised when Bruxy (disagreeing with Greg’s view that Peter used his irrevocable God-given spiritual powers to kill Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5]) said he thought God took Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation and that this was in God’s perspective a right, wise, and loving thing to do. The interesting point is that Bruxy and Greg are equally committed to ascribing zero violence to God. So the only reason Bruxy can see God’s taking Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation as wise and loving and Greg not see it this way is because the two of them define ‘violence’ differently. The difference won’t show up in genocidal passages (which sort of passage Greg suggests to me was one reason why he chose not to define violence), but it will and does show up in other controversial passages (like Ananias & Sapphira) that are central to Greg’s thesis. As it so happens, in recently attempting to get people to be explicit about what really constitutes ‘violence’, I was surprised to discover little general interest in the question and little agreement over what constitutes an act’s ‘violence’. I think this is pretty significant.

Third—making a certain view of the Cross the ‘exclusive’ center.
Greg points out that I’m wrong about saying he suggests the Cross “exclusively” defines the hermeneutical center. Fair enough. But I didn’t mean to suggest that Greg takes no notice of the incarnation or the resurrection as definitive of the Cross. I was referring to Greg’s positing a choice between taking the Cross over the life of Christ as the defining center. I’m referring, of course, to Greg’s own arguments for why the entire life of Christ (considered as a whole) cannot successfully be considered the center because it’s too broad a center and it involves too many disagreements. The Cross, Greg argues, is a narrower and more agreed upon thematic center. It’s that particular choice I was speaking to. That is – our options are exclusively binary – either Christ-centered (taking the entire Christ-event as the center) or Crucicentric (taking the Cross as the center). I didn’t suggest Greg doesn’t integrate everything outside the Cross, I was only commenting on his reasons for why the Cross, and not the entirety of Christ’s life, be the center.

Fourth—not evaluating the lengthy case Greg makes for his understanding of the Cross.
Greg chides me a bit for not evaluating the lengthy case he makes for his particular understanding of the Cross (as opposed to focusing on the Cry of Dereliction as a tiny aspect of the Cross). I confess I’m baffled by this. I actually have commented on the principles of divine accommodation, spiritual warfare (basically agreeing with the reality of creaturely choice and the nature of created opposition to God, but stopping short of making Satan a functional demiurge), and semi-autonomous power. But most reviewers focus criticism on what they find most objectionable, and that’s what I did.

It seems to me that if one places the Cross at the center of one’s theology, what one believes the Cross to be defines that center. True, Greg says a great many things at length about the implications of the Cross, but it seemed clear to me as I read CWG that the Cross understood as God’s own experience of godforsakenness and self-estrangement was the center of gravity around which the rest of the work revolves. I focused on this aspect because, though Greg didn’t spend hundreds of pages on it, by the very nature of its relevance, ‘divine abandonment’ constitutes the center of the center. Yes, of course the Cross is also an ‘accommodation’ to our fallenness. Yes, it’s also ‘warfare’. But the divine act in/on the Cross which makes its accommodating act an engagement with the fallen powers (which I don’t disagree the Cross is) is precisely the divine abandonment that Greg posits. It’s this reading of the Cross that I focused my objections on because that’s what I find objectionable.

Now, in his response to me Greg seems to be suggesting that viewing the Father’s abandonment of the Son is a minor and negotiable point because it receives only a fragment of CWG’s 1,400 pages. If this is the case then many of us are truly dumbfounded, for we assumed Greg’s view of the divine abandonment “behind the scenes” which defines the Cross was indeed central to his thesis. Now it seems Greg is acknowledging that how he interprets the Cry of Dereliction isn’t definitive of the Cross that defines the center. If that be the case, then – forgive me Greg – this really is a poorly written book, because nobody reading vol. 2 would think that the divine abandonment which Greg defines as the truth of what’s going on “behind the scenes” is for Greg a negotiable, non-essential aspect of the cruciform thesis. It’s not always about volume, i.e., how many pages one spends discussing a question. It’s where you’re standing in relation to the whole when you say what you say, even it’s a fragment of the whole.

If I was the only one who thought any of this, I would never have reviewed CWG to begin with, but it was the overwhelming push back on precisely this aspect of the book that encouraged me to express my own thoughts too.

facetoface2Fifth—on the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the consequences of our choices.
Then there’s the issue of the intrinsic nature of the consequences of our choices. Greg argues that Jesus suffers the death consequences intrinsic to our sinful choices. Now, I question the very notion that Christ can suffer any intrinsic consequences of our sinful choices, especially if, as Greg says, those consequences are ‘organic’ to the choice. If organic to the choice, then – I say – organic to the chooser. Indeed, it’s undeniable that the despair and godforsakenness Greg holds to be intrinsic to our sinful choices are already invariably experienced by those who make those choices.

Greg apparently questions this line of reasoning (if I’m following him) and offers a strange defense of the transferability of the intrinsic consequences of one person’s choices onto another subject. Here’s the analogy: Joe gets drunk and passes out on some train tracks. Bill steps in to pull Joe away from an oncoming train. Joe is saved but Bill gets stuck and is killed by the train. In Greg’s view, Bill experiences the consequences that were ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choices. But this seems mistaken. Getting struck by a train is not intrinsic to the choice to get drunk; nor is getting struck by a train intrinsic to passing out drunk on train tracks. But, one might reason, Bill gets struck by a train only because Joe was there drunk and in the way of an oncoming train, so surely Bill suffers ‘what Joe would have suffered’ had Bill left Joe on the tracks. Not exactly, but let’s go with that. Even so, this is not to transfer to Bill what is ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choice. On the contrary, Bill experiences the consequences intrinsic to his choice, namely, to risk his safety to saving Joe. But that risk is not intrinsic to Joe’s decision to get drunk.

Sixth—penal-substitution.
This brings up my comments that Greg’s view appears to me to maintain a penal-substitutionary flavor or orientation, a point about which Greg expresses some disappointment in my reading of him. My reasons for reading Greg this way are documented here and elsewhere by others who have reviewed CWG. No need to repeat all the points. I’ll just say a few things to clarify. First, I could of course be reading Greg wrong, but I’m not the only one to see CWG as offering a version of penal-substitutionary atonement. Virtually all those involved in recent online conversations pick up the same penal assumptions at work. Secondly, Greg feels that since God doesn’t transfer our actual guilt onto Jesus and doesn’t emotionally vent rage upon Jesus, and since Greg doesn’t articulate what does go on in the Cross in forensic terms, he’s clear of any penal associations. However, transfer of guilt and feelings of rage are not an essential, defining aspect of a penal model of atonement.

It would be interesting to pursue this more, but I’ll close this point by saying, thirdly, that another reason the force of Greg’s response to me on this point is surprising is that elsewhere online recently, Greg asked those of us in the room to clarify why we were all objecting to his book on the grounds that it offers a non-Girardian, penal view of the Cross. I responded to him in precisely the terms I’ve done on this post, saying:

Of course, as you say, the Father turns Jesus ‘over to the crowds’ (i.e. surrenders Jesus to human violence). Everybody agrees on that much. But that’s not “all [you’re] saying.” You’re saying that in addition to our abandoning Jesus, the Father himself abandons Jesus and the pain of the latter abandonment is what does the saving work. But there’s no logical connect between God’s turning Jesus over to be abandoned by the world and God’s abandoning Jesus. Why must such abandonment occur? The intrinsic death consequences to all sin. But this just is PSA. You have a softer articulation of it because you emphasize the love that motivates it and you also don’t limit it to the elect. But it’s still the same exchange. Why *must* there be satisfaction of the so-called intrinsic consequences of sin? What is forgiveness after all? Why cannot God welcome us home without suffering his own antithetical negation? You already grant that God forgives us entirely apart from such abandonment. So follow the logic of that through – what kind of love is capable of ‘forgiving’ us without suffering self-inflicted self-negation but is not capable of being present with us in transforming ways without such negation?

To which Greg responded (to me and the group):

Oh, okay. For the first time I think I may see how you construe my view as PSA. I have been utterly baffled up to this point. I’ll have to think about this some more and I suspect it will need [a] separate post to address, but I suspect the problem comes from different understandings of “abandonment” and why Jesus had to die.

Ya think? My point exactly, which is why I’m confused over why Greg in his ReKnew response now seems at all surprised or bothered by my describing his position as reducible to penal-substitutionary assumptions. He had already agreed to understanding why I and others were reading him that way.

Seventh—regarding whether God’s experience of himself is “reduced” to godforsakenness.
I expressed my objection to Greg’s view of the Father forsaking the Son, and of the divine persons being “estranged from one another,” in terms of Greg “reducing” God to godforsakenness. Greg objected to the word “reduce” here and insists he doesn’t reduce God to godforsakenness, and he wonders why I would think he holds such a position. To clarify, I didn’t say Greg reduces God simpliciter to godforsakenness. I said Greg reduces God’s triune “experience of himself” to godforsakenness and self-estrangement. We’re only talking about God’s “experience.” Why? Because Greg is the one who makes the distinction (vol. 2, chapter on divine withdrawal) between God’s essential unity of being (or “existence”) as such and God’s “experience” of his own unity. And Greg builds his view of divine abandonment on the premise that God has no experience of his essential triune being that transcends the world. In existential terms (terms Greg introduces to accommodate the compatibility of godforsakenness with God’s essential unity), God is reduced to the pain of godforsakenness, i.e., there is no transcendent experience Father and Son enjoy that is not affected by the Cross. That’s what I mean by “reduced to.”

I appreciate and admire many things about Greg. None of my comments was meant to impugn his character, his love for God, or his passion for people. I’m only interested in the content of his views, particularly his Christology, in relation to his Trinitarian arguments in T&P (Trinity & Process), and I encourage Greg to consider integrating T&P into his present views in a serious, more thoughtful way. That would be an interesting read!

(If there are any worries about the picture opening this post, it’s a picture of two boxers going toe to toe – just in case anyone thought it was Greg and I.)

Saved by joy

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Sometimes questions arise that enable us to see the meaning of theological claims with practical clarity. I’ve always sought to pursue this practical-existential side of things, believing that the meaning of our claims is, in the end, just the difference they make to how we appropriate their truth in all the transforming ways that we give the name “salvation” to. It was this level of appropriation or integration which, if I’m not mistaken, most informed the early Christological debates that produced the Nicene and following ecumenical expressions of faith. How does this or that theological claim (whether it’s made by Arius, or Nestorius, or Barth, Moltmann, Boyd or whomever) explain, inform, and empower the particular experience of worship and personal transformation in Christ which the early generations of believers gave the name ‘the Faith’ to? This is at least one level, an existential stage, upon which we can put theological claims to the test.

Greg earlier asked me in the comments section of a recent post, what I made of of 1Cor 5:21 (God made him who knew no sin to “be sin” for us) and Gal 3.13 (Christ “became our curse”). Greg takes these as evidence of a particular understanding of atonement (i.e., what actually is happening in the Cross and how it does the saving work of freeing and transforming us). The logic behind such a view is a certain entailment between choice and consequence. As Greg argues it, Jesus has to experience the “death consequences” of our sinful choices (which consequences are the despair of godforsakenness). These consequences must be experienced because they’re “intrinsic” to the sinful choices we make. But it makes little sense to say that experiencing the existential despair of godforsakenness is “intrinsic” to my choices and argue that someone other than me can experience those consequences on my behalf.

kafka_comic_400On the contrary, if the consequence of existential despair is “intrinsic” to one’s choices (and I agree it is), it has to be experienced by the subject of those choices, not an innocent, scapegoated subject. This is where Greg’s view of atonement shows the essential penal weave to the fabric of its logic. Against this logic it should be acknowledged that those who sin already know the despair their choices result in, for no choosing of one’s way through life outside one’s truest identity in Christ is going to result in anything but despair. So the consequences that are intrinsic to our choices are invariably experienced – by us who make those choices. As Kierkegaard said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are” (in Christ). One is saved, then, from the “death consequences” of his sinful choices by making different choices, but there’s no saving merit in someone who knows who he truly is (i.e., Christ) suffering the despair of being confused about who he is – as if that’s going to restore us who don’t know who we are to our truest identity in Christ. On the contrary, Christ shows us who we are by enjoying who he is on the inside of the pain, rejection, and violence we fabricate false identities to deal with. Christ saves us from the despair of not knowing who we are as loved by God in a fallen world by himself becoming who we are meant to be, loved by God, in that fallen world. That – not the tragic passibilism of a shattered divine consciousness – unlocks the door.

As I earlier suggested, Christ’s “being made sin by God” (1Cor 5.21) can hardly be thought to represent any transformation of God the Son into sin substantially, since sin is not a quantifiable ‘stuff’ that can move from the guilty to the innocent. We ought to understand this, rather, as Christ’s having stepped into our scapegoating violence. Christ is “made sin by God” in the sense that God turns Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms in which we identify the innocent victim with our sin. Gal 3.13 makes the same claim. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God.

What’s this have to do with the practical-existential challenge of integrating particular beliefs and models into our lives in transforming and saving ways? Some (Greg included, as he’s made clear) struggle with integrating into their lives in saving and transforming ways any vision of God that doesn’t have God giving up his happiness (beatitude) by identifying with our particular despair. Knowing this comforts and frees an enslaved mind. 1Cor 5 and Gal 3 represent for Greg the Pauline perspective on the divine abandonment to godforsakenness that frees and heals us. But as I’ve been laying out in this and other recent posts, the logic doesn’t work.

How might this older, more traditional understanding of the Cross be appropriated practically-existentially? The short version is – we’re saved from sin and death by God’s life manifest in resurrection and from despair by God’ abiding beatitude. I can only describe it in terms of being on one side and then the other of the truth of our created finitude, testified to consistently by the experience of generations of Christian believers and ascetics.

First – stepping into the Void on its created side as embracing the truth of finitude. There’s no final perfection of our happiness and truest identity that is not cognizant of the truth that we are created, and that the truth of being created is the truth of finitude, of our nothingness apart from God’s gracious creative act. We are painted into being. And this is experienced on the front end as an experience of the Void. Apart from an experience of our created finitude in terms of the Void, we can only continue attempting to establish a meaning and significance for ourselves that is over-and-against God and not a participation of finitude in the undiminished infinite beauty, goodness, and truth that God is. If we balk and complain about being nothing and want our existential healing to be purchased at the expense of God’s own existential fullness and not convertible with that fullness, we are only refusing to come to terms with the truth of our finitude.

Second – stepping through the Void on its divine side as participating in God’s life. The first step through the void of one’s finitude and nothingness into personal existence on the other side is a step into a life of participation. When you no longer view your existence as a product of your own, you also realize you can’t view your own meaning and significance as your own accomplishment. You see, too, that meaning and value are, like being itself, God-given, and enjoyed through participation in God’s life, and you’re OK with this. In fact, you celebrate it because it opens up vistas of existential fullness.

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If the first existential moment is “I am nothing,” the second is “I, not I, but Christ am everything.” Here “I, not I, but Christ” (having become a single, indivisible substantive) replaces “I.” There is no longer any “I” that can be spoken without speaking “Christ.” Descartes’ “I” doesn’t survive the Void. It gets crushed under the weight of creation contemplated independently, seeking first to establish itself as free, and only then to relate itself to God.

God is the only value, meaning, and personal identity on the other side of the Void. The diversity of created values and beauties exist, truly exist, as participations in God, the highest value and truest good. What do I mean by participation? I mean the asymmetrical relational unity of the true ‘Cry’ (not that of abandonment, but that of Sonship: Rom 8.15). We are given, via the Spirit, the Son’s very own cry of filial identity: “Abba, Father.” Because one is ‘given’ it and possesses it as a son/daughter “in the Son,” one participates in it. This is where one experiences – not studies, not agrees to the truth of, but becomes an embodiment of “all things are ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ God” (Rom 11.36). The flip side of this truth is that God is ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ nothing.

The bad news is there is no “cross” on the divine side of the Void, within the fullness of the divine life that becomes our life – no scapegoating violence manufacturing even a moment of negation within its infinitude, no privation of the true, the good and the beautiful, no falsifying abandonment or forsakenness to darken the divine consciousness. There is most certainly a kenotic giving-and-receiving of all one is to the other, but this is God’s delight and beatitude. The good news is that this is true in the darkest of circumstances and upon every cross.

My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?

Easter-message-picMy final thoughts on the so-called Cry of Dereliction, after which I promise to abandon this subject (pun intended). We should finally consider the relevant texts themselves. In CWG (pp 770-774) Greg expounds his understanding of Christ’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46 and Mk 15.34) as the “paradigmatic judgment of sin.” Greg takes the words of the Cry to be the “most profoundly revelatory” words found in Scripture, for here God “experiences his antithesis” by “becoming the sin of the world” (2Cor 5.21) as well as “our godforsaken curse” (Gal 3.13), though Greg does not consider this to be the Father acting violently toward Jesus.

Evaluating Greg’s objections to the Ps 22 connection
Greg notes the Cry has always troubled theologians who were “invested in preserving the classical understanding of God’s impassibility and immutability,” aspects of which (viz., actus purus or ‘pure act’) he summarizes and dismisses; “How could God the Son truly experience abandonment from the Father if the Trinity is ‘above’ suffering and ‘above’ experiencing any kind of change?”

I’m not sure how “troubled” by the Cry theologians are who seek to defend a classical understanding of God’s impassibility. Greg doesn’t give any examples. Given the classical view of transcendence, I suspect there’s far less likelihood the Cry would trouble a classical theist than a kenoticist – truth be told. However, I don’t mind agreeing with objections to aspects of classical theism (as I understand actus purus). We’ve made them repeatedly ourselves here. But Greg’s account makes it appear as though any rejection of actus purus classically understood is a default adoption of his understanding of the Cry as the Father’s abandonment of the Son. But it’s worth pointing out that one could agree with Greg on all his substantive objections to classical theism and yet reject Greg’s thesis of divine abandonment as equally objectionable as whatever aspects of classical theism one has a problem with. There’s no default win for Greg’s view of the Cry if classical theism is proved to be wrong. But I got the distinct feeling in CWG that Greg construes his view of the Cry as following logically from certain weaknesses of classical theism, which of course it doesn’t.

Classical theism aside, however, there are serious theological problems with divine abandonment on the Cross as Greg imagines it. I’ve rehearsed these already. Even a thorough-going kenoticist could have as great a problem with Greg’s thesis as she does with Chalcedon. But what about the exegetical particulars of the Cry itself? Let’s take a look at aspects of it that Greg brings up in CWG.

First, consider the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Cry in both Mt and Mk:

Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Mark 15:34: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

The transliterations in both Mt and Lk are followed by a similar “…that is to say, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Second, Greg offers two reasons for thinking Jesus is not alluding to Ps 22 but is in fact offering his own, original composition expressing his personal dereliction. First, he notes that if Jesus was alluding to Ps 22, he would surely have quoted it in Hebrew. But he speaks in Aramaic (which we have in the form of transliterated Greek). That Jesus speaks Aramaic suggests he does not have Ps 22 in mind. Secondly, Greg quotes R. T. France’s objection that “if we read into these words an exegesis of the whole psalm…we turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”

Let’s look at this shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22 (“as an expression of confidence”), we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of a particular agony, namely, the agony of divine abandonment. But (a) this is the point of debate, so how is it an argument in favor of Greg’s view that if Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 his agony must be understood differently than Greg thinks? In addition, (b) no one who denies Jesus is abandoned by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified and left to die.

(2) More significant is the apparent fact that Jesus cries out in Aramaic. Jesus is a Jew whose Scriptures are written in Hebrew. It seems strange that in his dying moment Jesus should quote his Scriptures not in their original Hebrew but in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Greg reasons that this must mean Jesus is not alluding to the Hebrew Psalm 22 but authoring his own personal cry of abandonment.

In response, I suggest that it’s completely understandable that a dying person would cry out to God in his heart-language, which was Aramaic for Jesus, in spite of the fact that the text he alludes to is a Hebrew text. I don’t find this especially odd at all. There were Aramaic targums of Ps 22 that were popular in Jesus’ day, and he would not have been ignorant of these. I suggest that given the intensity of his sufferings and the nearness of death, it would be unusual to hear him cry out to God in a language other than Aramaic (his heart-language).

christ-on-the-mount-of-olives-1819But there are few other interesting facts about the Greek transliterations of the Cry found in Mt and Mk which Greg doesn’t discuss which I’d like to consider.

(a) Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were different but very closely related languages. For example, lama (some MSS have limi, “to what” or “for what”) is both Hebrew and Aramaic for “why.” There’s no deciding what language Jesus cried in based on this word. And both Hebrew and Aramaic indicate the perfect tense of the 2nd person singular with the attached pronoun “me” (as in “You ______ ed me” ) by suffixing the verb root with “—ani.” The verb conjugations are identical in Hebrew and Aramaic.

(b) “My God” doesn’t settle the matter either, since it is transliterated differently in Matthew and Mark. Most ancient Greek MSS traditions try to normalize these differences between the two. Only the Byzantine text consistently preserves the distinction. (Of course the Nestle-Aland preserved the differences as well.) What differences? Well, Matthew transliterates Jesus’ Cry with Eli (Ἠλί) for “My God” which, interestingly, mirrors the Hebrew of Ps 22. Mark has Eloi (Ἐλωΐ) which is Aramaic and not biblical Hebrew.

(c) Though there is some question over its precise origination and meaning, the verb shabaq is not biblical Hebrew but originally Aramaic. Were Jesus quoting the Hebrew text, he would have used azavthani (“forsaken” or “abandon”) which we find in the Hebrew of Ps 22.

(d) The verb shabaq, however, is not only Aramaic, it’s also Mishnaic Hebrew (a descendant of biblical Hebrew that developed under the influence of Aramaic following the Babylonian captivity). It’s entirely possible that Jesus is citing Ps 22 in Mishnaic Hebrew. And there are those who argued that presenting a biblical text in Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-known Rabbinic technique introducing a midrash (interpretation or teaching) on the text in question.

(e) What does seem unlikely is that Matthew would have changed the Aramaic Eloi to the Hebrew Eli and not change sabachthani to azavthani if he was interested in making the quote conform to the Hebrew text. But if Mishnaic Hebrew is in view, then things fit. In addition, there is the question of Aramaic targums that do use shabaq in their translations of Ps 22.

What’s the point of all this?
The linguistic data isn’t easy to assemble into a coherent picture. But it’s not altogether certain that Jesus was speaking Aramaic on the Cross. My point is that if he was, there is nothing about this that would suggest he was not alluding to Ps 22. Matthew’s account makes the Mishnaic Hebrew connection stronger because Eli is clearly Hebrew, and Mark’s passion narrative (cf. Rikk Watts on Mark’s use of Ps 22) has obvious allusions to Ps 22 besides the Cry. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us assume, he suggests, that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22. This would not, he contends, “undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment on the cross,” for it was only “after the psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.” So even if one understands Jesus as referencing Ps 22, it needn’t lead us to deny that Jesus “was genuinely experiencing godforsakenness” and “was even experiencing confusion as to why it was happening.”

But this seems confused. Does Greg want a genuine abandonment of the Son by the Father, a true withdrawal of the Father that occasions a genuine experience of godforsakenness, or not? It seems his cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ feel this particular agony and that it not be the result of misperceiving. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandoned its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering; but this undermines Greg’s case for more than an apparent abandonment. So I don’t see how Greg can concede that Jesus has Ps 22 in mind and still secure the particular view of divine abandonment that defines his view of the Cross.

What in Jesus’ experience parallels Ps 22?
What about those who argue Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 in its entirety but who also argue Jesus never despairs of the Father’s love, presence, and filial affection? Surely there must be something in Jesus’ experience that parallels or fulfills the psalmist’s cry which, admittedly, seems to reflect some doubt or lapse in his belief or confidence in God’s faithfulness.

This is an excellent question. My own sense is that there is nothing in Jesus’ experience that parallels any suspicions the psalmist might have in God’s faithfulness, nor must we suppose there to be in order to make sense of Jesus alluding to the psalm. To begin with, assuming the psalmist genuinely interprets his suffering as God’s having abandoned him, it does seem strange that he would go to this same God in prayer. Biblical prayer presupposes at least some confidence in the faithfulness of God, some belief that God hears one’s prayer and is open to responding. Is his opening cry a poetic-rhetorical device to heighten suspense and drama? When we cry “God where are you?” does it follow that we’ve concluded God has forsaken or abandoned us? If so, why are we addressing our prayers to him at all? No prayer to God can be motivated by a belief that God has absolutely forsaken and abandoned us.

7511534I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ve already drawn out this series on divine abandonment too long. My point here is that whatever the precise belief of the psalmist may have been, there is no one-for-one parallel between every belief and attitude held by the psalmist from the beginning of his experience to his vindication, on the one hand, and existential carbon copies of each of those beliefs and attitudes that must obtain in Jesus. There’s no warrant for insisting on this kind of ‘fulfillment’ simply because Jesus alludes to Ps 22. It’s enough that Jesus responds to the taunting crowds who provoke him with their “Where’s God now?” and “Come on down if God’s on your side!” by offering them a well-known account of an innocent, scapegoated victim who was not in fact abandoned by God but who was vindicated: “You think God has abandoned me here? You think I’m cursed by God as I hang here on this tree? Go read Ps 22 and think again.”

What about the Garden?
It occurred to me that Jesus’ sufferings en route to the Cross have an important role to play in deciding what Jesus took to be the meaning of his pain and suffering, and the intensity of his suffering in the Garden (Mk 14:32-34; Mt 26.36-46; Lk 22.43-44) came to mind. How are we to understand this suffering relative to claims that it is divine abandonment experienced as godforsakenness which gives Jesus’ suffering its redemptive value? In the Garden Jesus suffers beyond description, sweating blood. He confesses that he is at the point of death. He offers his humanity in all its finitude and natural weakness to God, truly wishing for there to be another way.

There is, however, no divine abandonment here. In fact, Jesus converses with his Father and is comforted by angels. At the center of his storm of pain there is the eye of the Father’s filial affection mediated to him by the Spirit. He is not alone (as he had made clear to his disciples – Jn 16.31-33). He knows the Father’s love and presence and still he sweats blood and feels like dying. So it doesn’t seem that divine abandonment either constitutes Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or that it is necessary to give his suffering their unique healing, redemptive value – unless we wish to argue that Jesus’ suffering in the Garden, his flogging, or the pain he bears en route to Golgatha all have no healing, transformative value in our lives simply because they were accompanied by his belief that the Father was personally and affectionately with him through it all.

My fundamental point is that this suffering is healing and transformative in our lives precisely because the Father’s personal presence and affection are present, defining Jesus’ own self-perception and understanding of his pain at a level nothing could deconstruct or wrest from his heart. There, friends, is our saving act. The reason nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8) is because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ.

Happy contemplating!

How Jesus viewed his Cross

hqdefaultPermit me another reflection (or set of reflections) on the question of whether the Son was abandoned by the Father on the Cross. The question is often answered solely in terms of the Cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Disagreements over the meaning of the Cry are played out in terms of whether Jesus is referencing Psalm 22 and if so how this might or might not inform our understanding of what Jesus believed to be the state of his relationship with God to be. My own sense is that this cry is indeed a reference to Psalm 22 and that, given the context of the Psalm, what Jesus is actually saying is “I am not abandoned by God as you suppose,” which is the opposite of what many take the Cry to mean. But it comes as bad news to some that Jesus did not suffer from any dereliction of mind or belief regarding the Father’s abiding love, intentions, support or presence throughout his passion.

In this post I think it would be helpful to expand the search beyond the Cry itself for clues to understanding how Jesus might have intended these words. How did Jesus view his Cross? Did he anticipate his own suffering? Did he describe it ahead of time? Did he saying anything during his trial that might give us an insight into what he thought was going on or what he believed would be the meaning of his suffering? What else did he say while on the Cross? Can his statements in any of these contexts help us understand his own understanding of his suffering?

I think there are significant statements Jesus makes that reveal his perspective on his own suffering. I invite you to consider what Jesus says before, during and after (in a manner of speaking) the Cross.

Prior to the Cross
First, Jesus anticipates his sufferings and resurrection (Mk 8.31; 9.30-31; 10.33-34; Mt 16.21-28; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; Lk 9.22-27). We repeatedly meet with Jesus’ prediction that “the Son of Man will be betrayed, suffer, die, and on the third day rise” (and similar phrases). It’s clear that Jesus knows he will be betrayed and murdered. He knows he will be handed over to religious scapegoating violence. There’s no surprise here. In addition, and importantly, he is as confident that he will rise as he certain that he will suffer and die. He knows the game-plan heading into Jerusalem.

Second, Jesus makes it clear that “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up.” Not only does he know the game-plan, but he is quarterbacking the play. Some want to ignore or dismiss the implications of Jesus’ claim that he will raise up his own body, but it has to be taken into any account of what one takes Jesus to mean by the Cry. I suggest that at the very least this means Jesus decides to submit himself to be killed and that nothing done to him by others wrests his command of the narrative and meaning of his suffering from him. This in itself makes any deconstruction of the divine identity Jesus enjoys exegetically untenable.

Third, a passage of central importance for understanding how Jesus viewed his upcoming suffering is the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples the night before he’s crucified (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 13), a meal not taken primarily from the Levitical repertoire of blood sacrifices but from a meal commemorating God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity (a point which N.T. Wright develops at some length) and the re-establishment of covenant. The meal anticipated the Exodus. For the Jews of Jesus’ day it anticipated the renewal of covenant for Israel fully returned from exile. The symbols of bread and wine anticipate deliverance and fulfillment of the covenant not through the pouring out of wrath on Jesus. Much more could be said here. I’ll just suggest that the symbols within the context of the meal commemorating the Passover – the renewal of covenant – suggest Jesus has a perspective on his imminent suffering that is not related to the satisfaction of divine wrath, certainly nothing involving his being rejected or abandoned by the Father.

Fourth, though Jesus clearly believes he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples, he does not believe the Cross is where his Father will forsake him. Jn 16.31-33 make this point 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 explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (Jn 16.33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground his disciples’ own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ despairing belief that God had in fact abandoned him.

Lastly, add to these Jesus’ very human struggle in the Garden (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22) when he prays “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Does this somehow negate his previously belief that death lies in his future? Is the doubt expressed in the Garden the beginning of a full blown dereliction of mind that overwhelms him on the Cross? That’s difficult to imagine. I’m not suggesting that no human doubt with respect to whether his death is necessary to fulfilling his mission is consistent. After all, Jesus is fulfilling human nature by offering it obediently to God in the very circumstances of finitude and suffering that defines our journey. But in any event, those doubts are faced and settled upon in the Garden, and Jesus goes to the Cross resolved upon death as ‘the way’ and so has already integrated the certainty of death and suffering into his self-understanding.

My point is that this process doesn’t reduce Jesus’ sense of identity and mission to the despairing dereliction some suppose. Struggle? Yes. Deliberation? Yes. Facing death within the finite capacities of human nature? Yes. Having his deepest sense of self, identity, and mission deconstructed – essentially his mind blow – by the belief that his Father abandons and forsakes him? That doesn’t seem to be even a plausible reading of the texts.

These five sources of information from prior to Jesus’ passion suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the Cross had been forged over time and in the most intimate of conversations between him and his Father and represent Jesus’ belief that he has come to fulfill Israel’s calling and covenant history. He knows the what, the why, and the whence (resurrection) of his suffering to come, and his understanding of the Cross did not include “being alone” or “abandoned” by the Father. Those promoting divine abandonment, however, suppose that although Jesus anticipated the suffering of the Cross and its rejection, and knew he would be vindicated through resurrection, and although he believed the Father would be supportively present with him, this all comes unraveled in Jesus’ mind on the Cross as he ceases to believe it.

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On the Cross
Comments Jesus makes while suffering include:

“Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
To Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.”

On the Cross Jesus has the presence of mind to connect his suffering purposefully to his mission and his identity as the Son beloved of his Father. He forgives sin, bestows eternal life, identifies himself as an innocent scapegoat, calls God his Father, has the presence of mind to care for his mother and John (Jn 19.26, which von Balthasar, interestingly, interprets as Jesus actually rejecting Mary as his mother in order to bring her into a participation of his own abandonment by God) confidently commits his spirit to his Father, and dies satisfied in the knowledge that his life’s mission is “finished” – that is, he continues throughout his passion to do what he sees the Father doing. This is perfectly consistent with the confidence he expresses prior to the Cross in what is to occur and what it will mean. Given what he says on the Cross, there is every indication that Jesus’ perspective on his own identity as the beloved of his Father and the success of his mission was not deconstructed or reduced to despair or dereliction by the intensity of his pain or by any internal perception or spiritual sensibility that God had abandoned him. He meaning-makes throughout his suffering without giving up any of this.

After the Cross
One post-resurrection passage that sheds light on Jesus’ interpretation of his own sufferings is Luke 24.25-27; 44-48 (his discussion with the two on the road to Emmaus):

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

What’s interesting here is the absence of any explanation by Jesus of his cross in terms of abandonment or godforsakenness. The plan and purpose of his suffering is summarized as anticipated from betrayal to resurrection. One is justified, I think, in suspecting whether Christ believed the atoning moment of his suffering was the Father’s having abandoned him if prior to, during, and after his crucifixion Jesus never explains his sufferings in such terms but anticipates the Cross and behaves upon it in ways utterly incompatible with his thinking of himself in such terms.

What other post-resurrection statements (of Jesus or others) might shed light on Jesus’ view of his own Cross? I’ll mention these as food for thought without going into detail, but the resurrected Jesus says to Paul, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4) What might this tell us about Christ and suffering? Anything? And what are we to make of Paul’s statement that he “fills up in his flesh what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ”? (Col 1.24) Does Paul anticipate entering into an experience of Christ’s passion means having God abandon him on some measure? That’s more than a hard sell. In Phil 3 as well Paul makes his inheritance of eternal life dependent upon his “participation in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Are we to imagine this includes an experience of divine abandonment? Same point regarding Paul’s understanding of identification with Christ in his death through water baptism. And what of Heb. 12.1-3 which introduces “hope” as a defining motivation for Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross? How is that hope sustained alongside his believing himself to be forsaken by God? Then there are 2Cor 5.21 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”) and Gal 3.13 (Christ becomes a curse for us). All these passages are worth exploring at length, but they suggest that the integration into life of a believer’s identification with Christ’s sufferings are anything but an experience of sharing in Christ’s being rejected or abandoned by God.

Consider as well whether God really forgives sin if he pours upon Christ the “death consequences” we deserve. It would seem that rather than forgiving sin that God prosecutes it, for 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 in Christ. We suggest that to take passages like 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 as expressive of the truth of God’s perspective and motivation is to read God as scapegoating Jesus in mythological terms.

Paul cannot mean (2Cor 5.21) that Jesus literally becomes sin in an ontological sense, or that his human, created nature even is transformed literally into sin, for Paul credits this transformation to God. I think if we read Paul here in terms of the broader narrative of the gospel and in the context of Jesus’ own anticipations and convictions, Christ’s being made sin has to be read as 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. God’s “making Jesus to become sin” is thus equivalent to God’s having Jesus become what we (not God) consider to be the divinely appointed mechanism by which our sin and violence are addressed – i.e., the scapegoat.

Same with Gal. 3. God didn’t curse Jesus and God isn’t of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. That’s Israel’s false belief and her own scapegoating, skewed perspective, not God’s. But God does give himself to it – i.e., to be treated by it, allowing it to exhaust its resources on him. But if it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? He demonstrates it by hanging on a tree without being cursed (or abandoned) by God. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us, then, is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse 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.

Lastly, there is the question of the application of a proper understanding of the Cross for Christians who are suffering innocently. The Cross functions as an example of how Christians are to suffer, not how they are not to suffer because Jesus suffered. If the moment that defines Christ’s Cross is Jesus’ derelict belief that God had abandoned him, then it’s difficult to see how the Cross becomes an example for Christian suffering, for no NT writer promotes the view that Christians are called to suffer God’s abandonment of them. Quite the contrary (Mt 6.24f; Rom 8.31-39; Col 1.24; 1Pet 2.21; 4.12-19; Heb 12.2). But how does the Cross exemplify the promise to us of God’s sustaining presence in suffering if it’s true that the Cross is most fundamentally an embodiment of God’s abandonment of Christ in fulfillment of the death consequences of our sin? Hebrews 12.2 grounds Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross in a vision of the joy his suffering would result in, hardly the kind of perspective on one’s suffering that a derelict, God-forsaken mind would be capable of. But if Jesus has the joy-giving purpose of his death in mind, as the perspective from which he interprets his own suffering as he suffering, he can hardly think of himself abandoned by the Father.

We have in these competing interpretations of the Cry fundamentally different visions of the God-World relation and its relational, aesthetic, and moral dynamics. So as the Knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 4

c4ad7e508ccb60f8b33c65e87387262d-w600In this fourth and final of our review series I outline my response to vol. 2 of CWG. First some Pro’s.

PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
● Asks the right question
There are several things to admire in vol. 2. The first I’d point out is the refrain that forms Greg’s basic line of approach: “What’s going on behind the scenes?” This highlights the hermeneutical process well, and it gets at the struggle people have reading the violent portrayals of God in the Bible. And of course, for Greg it also is the key question to ask of the Cross itself. What really is going on here? If Christ (whether broadly understood as incarnation, life, death and resurrection or exclusively as merely that moment of Christ’s cry of dereliction) is the centered from which we are to read the Bible, then something like the cruciform thesis is needed to express the fundamental/quintessential narrative within which one is to read the Bible. And this is what vol. 2 sets out to do – bring a cruciform hermeneutic to bear upon specific texts through asking “What’s going on behind the scenes?” I generally admire the clarity that Greg is able to bring to complex issues, and this line of approach is a case in point.

● Driven by pastoral concern
A second point I admire (true of the entire work, not just vol. 2) is the pastoral heart that drives this work. I’ve brought troubled individuals of my own acquaintance to Greg for coffee and meals and he’s always found time to help people process the intellectual side of their faith struggles. Greg has a huge heart for hurting, struggling people and it shapes CWG from start to finish. If I didn’t think this was true of Greg, and if I didn’t believe the existential despair and struggles that people face could be better addressed through a more Orthodox Christology, I wouldn’t bother reviewing this work at all.

● Not afraid to dive in
A third thing I admire about vol. 2 is Greg’s willingness to dive into the deep end of the pool. As relentless as he was in vol. 1 to catalogue divine violence through the Bible, he’s as thorough in bringing those same passages under the review of his cruciform hermeneutic. He wants to demonstrate that this hermeneutic can do the heavy lifting he claims it can do. So he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mess. This gives Greg’s work a fresh, honest appeal that people like. You can study gardening in a book sitting in your living room, or you can ‘do’ it by actually doing the work of gardening – digging and planting. To his credit, Greg doesn’t shy away from the latter.

CRITICISM AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
● Shelley’s opening analogy
Greg opens vol. 2 with an imaginary story about seeing his wife Shelley on the opposite side of a street launching into a panhandler. She screams at the panhandler, slaps him around, kicks his wheelchair over and storms off with something of the panhandler’s. Greg observes her behavior and, knowing what a loving, non-violent individual Shelley is, reasons that there must be something else going on here that he doesn’t perceive, something that explains how her behavior is in fact loving and non-violent. But if you recall, this perfectly illustrates the truth of the Synthesis Solution which Greg rejects in vol. 1. In Greg’s view, God only appears to do violence. But Shelley isn’t appearing to slap the panhandler. She’s actually slapping him, kicking him over, etc. That this would be viewed as something other than loving and good for her to do is due to our limited perspective. But this is the Synthesis Solution straight up. So the analogy Greg opens vol. 2 with undermines everything.

● Misses Rene Girard
A good deal of online interaction (blogs and online forums) has chided Greg for adopting a non-Girardian, penal-substitionary model of the Cross/atonement (PSA). Greg found his way into these conversations and was, as he describes it, dumbfounded at how so many could read him as promoting PSA. He went on to clarify his position in a recent ReKnew post. You’ll have to read him and judge for yourself. I think the deeper issues remain unaddressed, and the persistent absence of any attempt to define what he believes constitutes ‘violence’ in the first place makes reviewing this work a stab in the dark.

● The Father abandons the Son
Much of our objections to Greg’s view of abandonment is based on the reigning evangelical Kenoticism, true. The idea that the triune experience that defines the divine relations in their full actuality can be severed such that Father, Son and Spirit all become estranged from one another (ad intra) is not historical, orthodox Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t have to argue on Chalcedonian grounds that it’s impossible. Assuming Kenoticism were true, one still has solid theological, exegetical/biblical grounds for rejecting the notion that the Father abandoned Christ in the sense Greg argues our salvation requires. Thus – it really is a question about which Cross is at the center, defining a cruciform thesis.

To simplify – Greg distinguishes between God’s triune “existence” (Greg’s choice of word, by which he means, I think, God’s unchanging, necessary “essence”) and God’s triune “experience” (the content of God’s lived, experienced actuality). God’s “existence” is just his essential, immutable, triune relations – the unbreakable (ontological) unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. The most important thing about this essential, unbreakable unity? It grounds the unchanging nature of God’s character as love. When St. John says, “God is love,” this is the ultimate divine reality behind that. But – and this is key to Greg – the triune persons do not have an equally unchanging “experience” of this essential oneness. So though the three are (ontologically) united as one, their experience of their own oneness (that is, God’s experience of himself as triune), a oneness that constitutes God’s nature as love, is subject to cessation and diminishment.

How so cessation? For example, when the Incarnate Son is gestating in Mary’s womb. What of the triune “experience” constitutive of God? Well, the Son is offline, so to speak. In Greg’s words, he’s taking a nap. Greg’s example: He still loves his wife Shelley when he’s sleeping. So – by parity of reasoning – Father, Son and Spirit can also be the one triune God whether or not they are awake to each other. There is a cessation, a hiatus, of the lived-experienced reality of triune existence.

How so diminishment? As well, for example, when Christ cries “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” For Greg this moment represents God “becoming his antithesis,” the mutual “estrangement” that pervades and envelops God’s “experience” of himself utterly and completely. Underneath (so to speak) this estrangement that defines God’s triune “experience” of himself, there lies the immutable divine essence which is God as love.

It does give one a headache – essence, existence, experience, actuality, existential fullness, dispositions, and so forth.

One desperate problem with this – as Greg himself reviewed against Hartshorne and Whitehead – is that the loving “character” of God is itself not identified with any experience God has of himself. God’s character – which Greg argued (long ago) prescribes the consistently loving nature of God’s actions – is itself the character of God’s triune experience. Greg argued at length against Hartshorne and Whitehead on this very point, insisting that the predictably loving nature of God’s character had to be understood as grounded in the lived, relational fullness of God’s triune “experience” (as mutual knowing and loving). Greg’s present idea that God’s nature as “love” is not itself convertible with the nature of God’s triune “experience” of himself is another departure of his earlier (well-argued) work for which he offers no line of reasoning. Nothing about God’s experience of himself as essentially triune constitutes the loving character of God’s actions. Everybody seems cool with this. Nobody (sauf moi et quelques fidèles) is crying BS on this.

joysetbeforeFinally, as Greg has recently made clear, this mutual estrangement of the three divine persons, this “becoming sin,” this “stooping to become God’s antithesis,” is what does the work of salvation. To be sure – Greg makes it clear this is no penal-substituionary divine rage needing its pound of flesh so that it can forgive. Nor is there in fact anything in God that requires God inflict upon himself his own triune estrangement. The necessity of it proceeds, argues Greg, entirely from “the nature of our bondage” and not anything in God. It is we (viz., the peculiar requirements of our bondage to sin) who require that the “death consequences of our sin” which are “intrinsic” to our own choices have to be suffered by God as his own internal estrangement from himself.

It all falls apart in the end. If the consequences of godforsakeneness (estrangement from God) are intrinsic to our sinful choices, then by definition they aren’t something that can be borne by another. They’re intrinsic to our choices. And in point of fact, we do experience the consequences of our choices. Our lives are without peace, without the transforming enjoyment of the knowledge of God’s love, without the joy that embracing his forgiveness brings, etc. – the absence of all these are the natural consequences of our falleness, and so long as we persist outside the truth of them we suffer the consequences. God doesn’t bear them. We already are bearing them.

Nor is it at all clear how God’s triune experience being reduced to the estrangement that is the consequence of our sin actually does the work of saving us from that estrangement. Greg doesn’t explain. What happens objectively when God’s experience of himself is reduced to our despair and estrangement? Is something paid for? Is there a transfer? An imputation? If the necessity for God’s triune self-estrangement derives from the nature of our bondage to sin and not from anything about God, then we should expect some explanation of how that estrangement grounds our release from sin and freedom to grow in love.

Consider too – Greg admits God’s actually forgiving us precedes the work of atonement. God doesn’t need to suffer to forgive. That’s good news. Divine self-estrangement isn’t about forgiveness. So why should the estrangement from God that I suffer because of my sin, which is already forgiven by God, have to estrange God from himself to make my acceptance of that forgiveness possible? Greg doesn’t say. But as it forms the core truth of God’s cruciformity, I expected some explanation.

Greg, some time ago here:

“If the Trinity experienced no disturbance whatsoever when Jesus cried out ‘My God, My God’, — if they just went on in the unbroken bliss of their moment-by-moment experienced unity — then pray tell: a) what did the Trinity sacrifice in saving us — for it looks like it costs them nothing? and b) how was Jesus’ cry of abandonment not a charade?”

But if God forgives without sacrificing – which Greg has already granted – what’s the point? What kind of knotty, confused metaphysics supposes that God can forgive us without sacrificing his own internal triune happiness, but cannot be present in our lives in transforming ways without having our sin wrest his happiness and beatitude from his heart and reduce him to our despair and godforsakenness? I think of Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee as an analogy. If Jesus walks to a sinking Peter on the surface of the waters that are drowning Peter but not threatening Jesus, is Peter supposed to feel it’s all a charade? Jesus isn’t sacrificing anything to save Peter. Is Peter supposed to complain that Jesus is ‘up there’ while he’s ‘down here’? Is Peter’s rescue not loving or objective?

The cry of abandonment as a declaration per Psalm 22 that Christ is not abandoned by God as the taunting theologians cried, is only a charade to somebody who needs God to be reduced to his own suffering before he’ll let himself rest in the forgiveness that’s his. It reduces to pagan scapegoating whether it’s framed in terms of suffering the consequences of our sin or in Moltmannian terms of solidarity with our godforsakenness.

I think I’ll wind down here. I had responses in hand to Greg’s particular view of Satan’s relationship to the material order (his principle of cosmic warfare) and some thoughts on his principal of semi-autonomous power (i.e., that Peter murdered Ananias and Sapphira through his violent abuse of God-given spiritual gifts), both of which are problematic. But – I’m personally spent on these issues. I hope readers will understand.

Exposing the problems inherent in supposing God can fail to experience himself in terms of mutually reciprocal knowing and loving has been a recurrent passion of ours here. But for those who can’t do faith standing in front of a Cross that does not shatter God’s experience of himself and reduce him to their despair and estrangement, God bless you. I can’t see it as anything but pagan mythology. Greg’s not a Cross I can stand in front of and see salvation in. But the feeling is probably mutual. I can only stand in front of a Cross in which death and violence are from beginning to end shattered by the infinite joy and delight of God’s triune life.