New Covenant: new law, new priest, new sacrifice

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It’s been nine months since my last confession. I apologize for the absence.

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

How are we to read Hebrews?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One could go on. Take Heb 10.8:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Inasmuch as”: impartation & participation

SRI LANKA-ATTACKSPredictably,  the attacks upon Sri Lankan Christians while they worshiped last Easter Sunday (both pictures in this post are of shrapnel-ridden, blood-stained statues from those attacks) have again brought front and center conversations about God’s goodness in our world. Tell us again exactly how it is God is perfectly and unfailingly benevolent and powerful in a world awash in such evil (natural and moral)? Each tragedy sees the same debate points posted and argued. With every renewal of this discussion it seems there are some from the ranks of every view on offer who defect to some other viewpoint. I’m not here to review the options or argue for a benevolent theism. Instead, I’d like to try to express an aspect of my own faith journey. Atheists, you’re excused for the time being. This is ‘siblings talk’ for the moment.

As I say, all I want to offer here is a description of how these attacks got me and Dwayne into considering as aspect of the Christian story and experience that I hadn’t previously contemplated. As Dwayne and I recently talked through these issues something dawned on me.

Let me begin a couple of curious passage that describe the intimacy of Christ’s identification with those who suffer. In Mt 25.31-46 (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), Jesus bases God’s eschatological judgment of us on the loving service we render to the destitute (i.e., the hungry, the poor and the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned). You know the conclusion: “Inasmuch as” we provide food, clothing, care, etc., to the destitute and imprisoned, we “do it to Christ.” And equally, inasmuch as we do not care for the poor and needy, we do not care for Christ. In loving and caring for those in need, we love and care for Christ – actually, personally, really.

The same identification is behind Paul’s admonition (Col 3.23-24) that Christians do all they do “as unto the Lord,” and here Paul surprisingly adds “not unto men.” Not unto others? Surely we do unto others what we actually do unto them, even if Christ is also therein served (or not). But the adversative “not unto men” turns the tables on our priorities and the direction from which we view things. It is Christ who is first served or not, and others are therein implicated. Christ is the truer, more significant object of our intentions and actions than are others who are by virtue of Christ implicated in our actions. But who views themselves and the world this way?

This relating to Christ as the object of our actions (good or bad) is evident in Christ’s confrontation with Paul in his conversion experience (Acts 9). The risen Christ appears to Paul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” and declares “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This is not unlike the Matthew 25 passage. The risen Christ identifies with his body – those who follow him (in Acts 9), but equally, even if more broadly, he identifies with all poor, all needy, and not, as some mistakenly read it, “poor Christians” (but not poor Muslims), or for dispensationalists (if there are any left) “poor Jews.” Does Jesus participate in the innocent suffering of the world? It would seem so. He is more truly present as the object of our actions than the poor and needy we perceive. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ is, after all, more truly present in every sense than any person allows him/herself to be present. He is present fully/completely, without diminishment of intention or perception due to selfishness or compromise. None of us is able to ‘show up’ so genuinely and unreservedly. In this way, our suffering becomes his own. But faith opens our eyes to this  presence and opens it to our participation.

This brings me to the second set of curious passages. If the first set of passages describes the sense in which Christ is present in our suffering by virtue of his own participation in the innocent suffering of the world he loves and sustains, the second describes the sense in which our suffering becomes a transforming-redemptive participation in his own historical suffering. I’ve commented on these passages here and here, but let me quickly mention them. First, in Phil 3.8-11 Paul views the Cross as participable, as sufferings we are able to share in. Paul’s desire to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.” Secondly, in Col 1.24 Paul views his own suffering as “filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” a very curious perspective, but incomprehensible as participation if the Cross be understood in penal-substitutionary terms. Then in Rom 6.3-5 Paul again views the Cross as participable, and lastly in Heb 13.13 we are instructed to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore” which, whatever else it may be, invites us to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Participation, not substitution, is the transforming logic of the Cross.

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I’d like to suggest that these two realities (Christ present in our sufferings, on the one hand, and our presence in his, on the other) form a single, transforming-redemptive unity – an asymmetrical relational unity which is itself the saving power of the Cross. We participate in the sufferings of the Cross by intentionally introducing the narrative of the Cross into our own meaning-making structure. This brings both the guilt and despair of sinners and the true nature of innocent suffering to light for transformational meaning-making as each receives its truth from Christ’s suffering. For the latter (the innocent victims) in this case, how Christ suffers becomes how we see ourselves as suffering, and so how the Father was with Christ in his sufferings (Jn 16.31-33) becomes how God is present with us in our suffering. It’s a relational unity because two subjects (Christ and us) are intimately related, so much so that both are objects of the same victimization. But the relationship is asymmetrical because one subject’s experience (Christ’s) alone has the power to define and transform the experience of those who interpret their suffering within the (transcendent) framework of meaning-making established by and offered to all in Christ.

However, participation in Christ’s sufferings defines not only how we self-perceive within our suffering (as essential as that is), it defines how we perceive and respond to others who persecute and victimize, i.e. forgiveness. Forgiveness is a necessary fruit of participation in Christ’s sufferings, and we have not participated in his sufferings until we, like him, extend forgiveness to our persecutors. It’s not enough to know I suffer innocently and to come to possess in Christ an enduring identity that no worldly suffering can deconstruct. What is this new identity if it is as unforgiving as the old? To participate in Christ’s sufferings is to be given his suffering as a place in which to experience my own, to suffer inside of his suffering, and what can this be but to suffer as he suffers, i.e. for others, in love, and to know that every victimizer is forgiven within the very event that establishes my own freedom from the victimizer. I am free from him and united to him at once, in Christ. So to not forgive is to have misrelated myself to Christ, and so to have failed to participate fully in his sufferings.

Of course, none of this is possible if one views the Cross in either penal-substitutionary terms (God pouring out our wrath-as-punishment upon Jesus) or in terms of God abandoning us existentially to suffer the consequences of sin as despair and godforsakenness (viz., Boyd’s view), for neither of these perspectives on Christ’s sufferings invites us to participate in the Christ’s sufferings. Both write us out of participation in the Cross, and to that extent they deliver not good news, but the worst news of all.

Vampires and Crosses

Cross 2019I recently started following Ethan and Wes’s Youtube channel ‘Mysterion’. They’ve just had Fr. Silviu Bunta (from Romania – hence “Vampires,” otherwise I would’ve never figured the title out).

I’m pondering how my own understanding of the Cross has radically changed the past decade or so. I haven’t run into anyone who publicly expressed things as well as Fr. Bunta. I hope you enjoy his comments (video below). If you grew up Evangelical, as did I, you’ll recognize how very different this view of the Cross is from anything you heard on Sunday growing up.

Being Holy Week, every pulpit in America is devoting its voice to proclaim the mystery of Cross but not all are sharing the same Cross. Not even close. Some will exalt this perspective:

…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God. (R. C. Sproul)

I faintly remember believing such things. Jesus’ view of his own cross began to redefine it for me. On the eve of his crucifixion:

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. (Jn 16.31-33)

Interesting, no? Jesus wants his disciples to understand from how he suffers how they shall possess his peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is thus how God is with us in our suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view Jesus’ as experiencing utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

Again, on the evening of his betrayal (Jn 14.30-31), he lets his disciples know that:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Of course, some prefer to suppose Jesus was mistaken, that he in fact encountered on the Cross a horror he did not expect, namely, the realization that the Father had abandoned him, that the Father was not “with him” as he anticipated (Jn 16.31-33 above). Such a view has to assume Jesus is being described (after the fact, by John and others who believed in the resurrection) as having fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his own passion.

Jesus also makes the curious statement in v. 27:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

When is this true? Where is it true? How is it true? It’s true on the night of his betrayal when he utters these words, but will it be true for Jesus a few hours later as he hangs on the Cross? Here, I proposed, is an assurance Jesus leaves his disciples on the eve of his lynching, an interpretation on the Cross which we fail to connect to the Cross, or if we do make a connection it’s only to point out that the Cross is the one place where this assurance fails to define for Jesus the truth of his existence. We think this because we believe its failing to be true for him is the cost he must endure so it can be true for us.

Please take a fresh look this week. Approach the Cross this week from Jesus’ own perspective. Consider: What he promises on the eve of his crucifixion, his Cross actually demonstrates; that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he himself actually possesses and embodies as he is murdered, and that only if his own assurances are true for him then and there can they be true for us here and now.

You will leave me, but he won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
in the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone — surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
drank it down, all the pain,
from inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell
would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity could conceivability
conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.

A relevant post of my own that touches on this is The Cross: Substitution and Participation.

The Crucifixion—Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3 to come, hopefully.

My peace I give you, as I hang here

crucifixionIconGeorgia12thCenturyJohn’s Gospel has been a wonderful resource of insight into Jesus’ perspective on his own Cross. I’ve commented on John 16.31-33:

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.

And on John 14.30-31 as well:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

From these we gain an invaluable insight into the one person’s perspective on the Cross that many writing on the subject today tend to ignore, that of Jesus, and into the transforming assurance that how God is with him in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

There’s no getting around the presence of mind and sense of purpose that Jesus possesses on the eve of his crucifixion. Some argue that Jesus comes to despair of these same truths when he encounters what he did not expect, namely, the reality of godforsakenness, that moment on the Cross when Jesus realized the Cross was something he did not plan for, that the Father he trusted would be “with him” in fact abandoned him and that he was wrong to have thought the Prince of this world “had no hold on/in [him].”

I want here briefly to introduce two further statements Jesus makes in Jn 14 which I previously failed to engage. First, in Jn 14.29 Jesus expressly mentions the fact that he has decided to give his disciples such assurance “before it happens” (i.e., before he was to be crucified) so that when it happens they “might have faith.” Every evidence of God’s faithfulness was to disappear from the horizon – society, country, covenant community, family, followers, life itself. Nothing within the created order would remain as a resource for Jesus to know that “peace” which he was promising others when they hung on their crosses.

That’s what the Cross does – for Jesus and for all of us – it takes ‘what is created’ to the absolute end of its resources where the Void of our created nothingness cannot be escaped. It cannot be a-voided. Only an uncreated source, an uncreated voice from beyond the horizon of finite nature can assure the human heart that it is loved, that it is not alone, and that it is secure.

Jesus knows exactly what conclusion the Cross will press upon his disciples (and which many theologians today conclude), and so he mentions “before it happens.” Mentions what? He mentions what will soon seem unbelievable to imagine. And what is that? Only this – that contrary to every evidence of Jesus’ godforsakenness, “I am” is with him, the Father has not abandoned him. He says it now “so that” when he suffers, we will have faith.

Jesus makes a second astonishing claim just a moment earlier, in v. 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” When is this true? Where is it true? It’s true tonight, but will it be true tomorrow when Jesus is hanging on the Cross? Here’s the point I think we race by in these assurances Jesus leaves with his disciples on the eve of his lynching. We don’t connect these sayings to the event of the Cross. If we do, it’s only because we think the Cross is the one place where these assurances fail to define for Jesus the truth of his existence, perhaps because we think their failing to be true for him then and there is the cost God must pay so that they can be true for us here and now. I can’t imagine a more despairing account of the Cross.

Let me suggest that what Jesus promises on the eve of his crucifixion his Cross actually demonstrates, that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he actually possesses and embodies as he is crucified. “My peace I leave you” essentially means “I’m going to show you how to have the peace that only God can give when the world takes everything else from you.” What Jesus promises his disciples the night before he dies he gives as he’s being murdered – but only faith will see it that way because, as Jesus said, it is “not as the world gives.” It is only found through participating in Christ’s sufferings, traveling with him to the brink of the Void and learning there from him how to hear the assurances of an uncreated source, how to live ex nihilo (out of nothing).

Three truths that define Jesus view of his Cross before he died:

“I am not alone, my Father is with me.”
“The Prince of the world has no hold on/in me.”
“My peace I leave you, not as the world is capable of giving. Don’t be afraid.”

If they’re not true of him as he hangs on the Cross, they’re not true the night before, but if they do define his deepest sense of identity as he suffers, then they can come to define ours as well.

God not other than what we find in Christ

NIKOLAI_Ge_Crucifixion“Every picture people have of God that is other than what we find in Christ on the cross is a mistaken conception of God.” (Greg Boyd)

Forgive me for hovering over Greg for a second post this week. I’ve been pondering this quote of his for days. Not surprisingly, I can’t think of any Christian (broadly defined) who would disagree with his statement, including the most classical of theists. But not all who agree with the statement find the same thing in Christ crucified. A more fundamental question might be: Just what does one find in Christ on the Cross? And granting that God cannot be other than what one finds, a more important question would be: How does one do the ‘finding’ which the Cross inevitably beckons us toward? The point, a bit discouraging if you ask me, is that there’s nothing obvious to find in the Cross even if one agrees with Greg that the Cross is the ‘X’ that marks the spot where the greatest treasure is to be found. Different Christians, all who agree with Greg’s quote, see different things and so find different treasures. I certainly find a different treasure than Greg finds.

Of course Greg doesn’t just say this much. He says a great deal, very capably and passionately, about what he specifically “finds in Christ crucified,” and it is with respect to what he finds that he makes his statement. But all this begs more fundamental questions: Is the truth of the Cross really that obvious? Does its treasure lie casually on the surface? How does one go about finding God in Christ on the Cross?

(Picture here.)