You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.
I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.
Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:
There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.
Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…cruical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.
The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us
…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.
Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…
Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).
It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.
The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).
By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.
…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…
There’s a lot to engage here. Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but one for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.
What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).
This is a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest. Greg has sent mixed messages as well. One could easily produce examples of Greg explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections we have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?
What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” which constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Jesus thus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakeness. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:
The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.
Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. But regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced.
If God’s suffering for us precludes punitive associations simply because God loves those for whom he suffers godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory is in fact a punitive understanding of the atonement, for such understandings all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve ‘out of love’ and ‘with the intention to redeem’, just as Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, ‘out of love’ and ‘in order to redeem’, just as Greg holds. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving, redemptive intentions absolve his own theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal, for all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem?
What do the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common then? What makes them equally, objectionably penal? It is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from the godforsakenness that transpires in God through the Father’s abandonment of the Son in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) is entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. The notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends, is itself the mythological contagion that undermines the gospel’s radical message. Girard understood this fundamental insight as defining a truly non-violent and non-penal view of the Cross.
One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:
…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this classic Christus Victor passage as well. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not simply between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.
Lastly, consider this. If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the scapegoating myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God where God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are, supposedly, experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. On the contrary, he must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.