Who’s afraid of the big bad cross? The bloodless theology of the mainline church. Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

If you were to worship in an American conservative evangelical church that hasn’t yet sold its soul to the prosperity Gospel, there is a good chance you may soon hear a sermon about the cross.

Not so in many Mainline churches.  I have been ruminating about why this is, given the cross’ important place in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, of which the Epistle Lesson appointed for tomorrow, 2 Corinthians 5:16-2, is a prime example.

This passage is clearly about the atonement, which was a word invented by Tyndale (“at-one-ment”) to translate the same Greek word that is also translated as “reconciliation.”

I expect there will be many sermons preached from it in “our” pulpits on how we need to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is an important message and one I have preached myself.

But what you are less likely to hear is why we Christians are to be ambassadors of reconciliation.  And that reason is clearly because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” which goes right to the heart of the Gospel, the act of God in Christ that became known as the atonement.

I have stopped using the term “liberal,” because it’s practically useless as a identifier, and its new substitute “progressive” carries political baggage that I find unhelpful.  I realize “mainline” has its own problems, but at least it covers a wider range of both theological and political positions.

So why do “we” (by whatever name) generally like the idea of reconciliation, yet not like the idea of atonement, even though they mean the same thing?

I have some thoughts.  One reason is some bad teaching in some of our seminaries, based on a view (false, in my view) that the cross is a bad business that perpetuates violence, which I have addressed elsewhere.  There is a current cottage industry making the rounds with this view, and many of our newer ministers, indoctrinated by it, are just uncomfortable or downright hostile to any atonement theology, however nuanced.

Another reason is that many folks who end up with our denominations are refugees from various traditions that have had excessive or morbid preoccupations with “the power of the blood,” and/or who have been subject to formulaic atonement theories that make God into a monster that needs blood sacrifice.  I have addressed that as well, in my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement.

I realize that some atonement theories can be monstrous, and I am aware of Stanley Hauerwas’s typically biting comment that if “you need a theory to worship Christ, go worship your theory.”

Nevertheless, what the word atonement connotes is at the crux (which is Latin for cross ) of our Gospel and proclamation if we are still to be called Christians.

And “the power of the blood,” however it has been misused, is just theological shorthand for Christ dying on our behalf, an act of the triune God, that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely reconciling us to God and to one another.  This is why Paul says we are now ambassadors of reconciliation.

Yesterday I sent out a Passion hymn text to a number of my colleagues, thinking they might want to use it on Passion/Palm Sunday or during Holy Week.  Most thanked me, some said they would use it, but several said they had a problem with the” blood“ in it.

The first verse is:

“He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
And yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.”

If you want to see the rest of the hymn it can be found here.

As Passiontide and Good Friday loom, “we” might do well to ask ourselves just what it is we are going to preach about if “the work of Christ” and its symbolic language is off limits?

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement” is now available at Wipf and Stock Publishers


Some of you have asked me how to get a copy of my little book on the atonement, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement.  The book was a Confessing Christ book, and published in 2000 by Pickwick Publications, which Wipf and Stock Publishers acquired in 2004.

This is good news for us theologs, since Wipf and Stock, like Pickwick before it, has made many useful and significant books available that would otherwise not be published for lack of a sizable market.

Confessing Christwants to support Wipf and Stock in this important mission, and so we now have an agreement with them to carry the book.  It has been selling at Amazon.com for $14.00.  Now you can get it at Wipf and Stock for $11.20.  It is in paperback with a thoughtful foreword by Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor Emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School, with a striking cover designed by James R. Gorman.

Alan P. F. Sell, Professor of Christian Doctrine and Philosophy of Religion, Aberystwyth, Wales, writes on the back jacket: “I warmly recommend this book to all who wish to reflect earnestly and joyfully on the heart of the Christian Gospel. May the Cross of the crucified and risen Savior ever be at the center of our worship, service, evangelism, and ecumenism.”

If we sell out our limited stock Wipf and Stock will make a new printing available, but I’m guessing without the beautiful cover, so get yours now here.  Some of you Barthians may recognize the cover picture, as Karl Barth had a reproduction of it over his desk when he wrote his monumental Church Dogmatics.

Confessing Christ owns the copyright, so profits beyond what Wipf and Stock gets will support their good work of encouraging “joyful and serious theological conversation.”

(Cover: Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Musee d’Underlinden, Colmar, France.  Copyright Giraudon.)

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

Abraham is the one who received the promise from God. God’s promise is that Abraham will have his own land and have many descendants, and through his descendants all the peoples of the world will be blessed. This is not only a big promise, but also an astonishing one, given that Abraham is a landless nomad and a childless old man, and his wife Sarah is barren.

Nevertheless, Abraham believes God’s word of promise and the promise is kept. Sarah becomes pregnant and bears a son, whom they name Isaac, which means laughter, for Sarah laughs when God tells her she will have a son. Young Isaac is now the bearer of the promise, but in today’s story the promise is threatened.

As with many biblical stories, we know more than the characters do. We know that God is testing Abraham, but Abraham doesn’t know this. God commands him to take his son, his only son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah to sacrifice him. The form of the command from God echoes the original promise to Abraham. So the God who made the promise seems to be putting the promise in jeopardy. Abraham hears God’s command. He has already lost his first-born son, Ishmael, whom he sent away into the desert with his mother Hagar, so the loss of Isaac will be the end of Abraham’s family, as well as the end of the promise.

Israel would have heard this story as their own story, for in their story the promise is always threatened. And the threat to the promise is the threat to their continued existence. Yet Israel would also have heard it as the story of how, though the promise is always in jeopardy, somehow God “sees” that the promise is kept, that the story continues.

So Abraham does as God has commanded him. He prepares for the sacrifice, takes Isaac and heads out to the land of Moriah on a three-day’s journey. After three days Abraham looks up and sees the place from far away. Father and son climb the hill and Isaac asks Abraham, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

God will provide. The word providence itself derives from this passage, and also from verse 14, after God has produced a ram. Then Abraham called the place, “The Lord will provide” or “The Lord has seen:” Jehova Jireh.

And God does provide. He produces a ram. Abraham passes the test. He is prepared to sacrifice his son, and with him Abraham’s own prospects as the carrier of the promise. But God doesn’t require the sacrifice of Isaac.

It is a disturbing story. It raises any number of troubling questions, and from the beginning interpreters have tried to figure out its implications, from the ancient rabbis to Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In our own time a psycholoanalyst has suggested that the story is a story of child abuse, and has burdened our religious heritage with a climate in which abuse is tolerated (see Alice Miller, The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1990, p 139). A tradition can be misused, of course, but let us leave the psychological and philosophical interpretations aside today and look at this story within the larger Biblical story of the promise.

In its own context within Genesis this episode is the climax of the larger story of the promise. It is a story about human faith, but above all, about divine providence, about the way God keeps his promise from generation to generation in the lives of these ordinary people.

Notice how few details we are told about God. In this story there is no burning bush, no ladder to heaven, just the simple command of God. Does Abraham see God? Does the command come in a dream, in a voice, in a cloud? We don’t know. Although God is the chief actor in the drama of promise and fulfillment, he remains in the background, speaking from mystery, his intentions not fully known.

In comparing this story with the Odyssey of Homer, literary critic Eric Auerbach notices that, unlike the Greek god Zeus, who is comprehensible in his presence, the God of the Bible is not; “It is always ‘something of him’ that appears, he always extends into depths.” The Greek narratives with their gods take place in the foreground, while the biblical narrative with its God remains mysterious and is ‘fraught with background.’ Here in Genesis we are not told everything as Homer would tell us, we are only what we need to know. Homer’s poem is almost photographic in its detail, but here we have few details. We don’t know what Abraham was thinking, what Isaac looked like, what kind of day it was. We are not told of inner states of mind. The narrative is spare. And it is not Abraham’s character, courage or pride that is decisive for the story, but his previous history, as the one to whom God has made the promise. (Eric Auerbach, Mimesis, p 12)

The story keeps us off balance. Its outcome is not predictable. And the spareness of the biblical narrative means we have to look for clues to discern what is going on. One of the clues here is the idea of seeing. Throughout the Genesis story there is the motif of seeing, the human characters seeing, and God seeing. For example when Hagar is told by an angel of the Lord that she will give birth to Ishmael. She says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

The human characters see, but only now and then, little bit by bit. Seeing is never complete. They see, to use Paul’s phrase “through a glass darkly.” The characters see only part of the way. But seeing seems to be essential for faith. The characters need to see, at least in part, what God is up to. They need to see how the promise is fulfilled. They won’t see completely, they must act in faith, and perhaps it is faith that lets them see as much as they do.

So Abraham travels for three days and looks up and sees the place for the sacrifice. And when he is about to sacrifice Isaac he looks up and sees the ram. Was the ram already there? Had God prepared for the sacrifice in advance? Could Abraham only see the ram when he trusted the Lord and met the test? We don’t know.

In any case “God says, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by the horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide.’” The Hebrew means “The Lord will see.”

So God also sees! But this Hebrew verb “to see” is a “warm verb,” so God is not merely a passive seer, but an active doer in response to what he sees. Providence means not just that the Lord sees, but that he “sees to it.” In the Latin, “to see:” Pro video. God will see to it!

So Question 27 of The Heidelberg Catechism:

“What does thou understand by the providence of God? Answer: The almighty and present power of God by which he still upholds and therefore rules as with His hand heaven and earth and every creature, and that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty and all other things do not come by accident but from his fatherly hand.”

The Lord will provide. He both sees and “sees to it.” Divine providence has often been understood as foreseeing, but that is only half of it. So Karl Barth writes:

“. . . The God who so wonderfully foresees and provides is not a mere supreme being but the God who, in this happening in which Abraham was to spare his son, acted as the Lord of the covenant of grace that Abraham was promised and given his successor Isaac, that he had then (as a prophecy of the One who was to come) to separate and bring him as an offering to God, but that he had not to die but to live as a type of the One who was to come and give life through His real death, a substitute being found for him in the form of a ram.” (Karl Barth, CD 3.3,35)

I am convinced that the earliest Christians were prepared to interpret the death of Jesus as an atoning, sacrificial act by God because they knew this story of Abraham and Isaac. As good Jews they trusted the identity of God as the One who both sees and “sees to it,” and so the crucifixion and resurrection were seen as the ultimate act of divine providence, doing for us what we could not and can not do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death.

A son climbs a holy hill with wood on his back for a sacrifice. They recognized that story! They knew it was a terrible story. But they were able to see in faith that God sees, and in Easter light, they saw with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, that God did provide the sacrifice, that the promise was kept and the story continues.

(I preached this sermon at the Tabernacle at Craigville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, on June 27, 1999. It is also a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Pickwick, 2000).

Ambassadors of Reconciliation

The theme for today’s meeting is reconciliation. It’s a big word for Christians, for it lies at the very heart of our identity. From the beginning the biblical story makes it clear that we humans are at enmity with God and with each other. The harmony of a God–given paradise quickly gives way to disobedience and death. Adam and Eve soon separate from God and their offspring soon have blood on their hands.

And still the mark of Cain can be seen in the human family, as Tsutsi’s and Hutus, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, Arabs and Jews, Bosnians and Serbs murder each other each day. In our own land great rifts remain between blacks and whites, hostility to aliens grows daily and guns seem to be the problem–solving method of choice for many.

We are increasingly a tribal culture: each of us preferring the enclaves of those who share our ideas, our class, our skin color, our ethnic heritage, our prejudices. In the business community, downsizing produces a culture of survivors, a bunker mentality that fractures community, creativity and innovation. In politics the infighting and rhetoric of abuse so dominates that the final victor is unable to govern effectively. Even in the church we are a fractured people, separated by walls of our own making, walls of race and sex, of creed and ideology. We meet in our small caucuses and interests groups and label those unlike ourselves, building ever higher and more complex walls to keep us apart from each other.

The biblical word for all this is sin, which means separation from God and one another. It would seem that from a human point of view there is no reconciliation. Yet it is into this broken and estranged world that the Word of God breaks forth with the message of reconciliation. “Hear the good news!” God declares. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!” What we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us.

The Christian story is a story of reconciliation and its very center is the cross of Christ, where God’s reconciling work is accomplished. In fact, the Greek word we translate as reconciliation also means atonement, at-one-ment, the bringing together of that which was separated. The biblical story is quite clear that the basic rift is between God and us and that our inhumanity to each other is a symptom rather than a cause. That rift is not something we can overcome by ourselves, but God could and did. On Calvary all the hatred and enmity of the world were nailed to the bloody cross with Jesus, and in that saving event Jesus represented us to God and represented God to us in a freely chosen act of obedience which is an atonement for the sins of the whole world. As John the Baptist said of Jesus at his baptism, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The Easter faith we profess is that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, and has died and been raised for us so that we may now live a new kind of life. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation: everything old has past away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. Not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This reconciliation was no abstraction for the church in the first century. A church comprised of Jews and Gentiles struggled to be reconciled against the weight of hundreds of years of custom and tradition reinforced by numerous religious laws. The potential for division was enormous and we can see the working out of it throughout the New Testament where the issues get joined. Must Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised? Do they have to observe the dietary laws of Judaism? We see the separation of rich and poor in 1st Corinthians, where the rich come and eat the supper for the communion before the poor can arrive.

Which is to say that it has never been easy to be the church, the community of reconciliation.. Reconciliation means hanging in there with those you would just as soon write off, but can’t because they belong to Christ as you belong to Christ and so they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is to model for the rest of the world the reconciliation that God intends for the whole world. That is why it is such a scandal when the church itself is divided.

I believe our own United Church of Christ is in for a very difficult struggle for the next generation. We are no longer a homogeneous church but exhibit a dizzying variety of folks, many who come from other religious traditions. The United Church of Christ means many different things to different people. There are many issues in contention among us at this time, including such core questions as what theology is appropriate for our church and what language shall we use to express our faith in liturgy and hymnody. Feelings about these issues are very strong. There seems little room for compromise between the opponents. Who will be the winners and the losers? A friend of mine who is a historian at Harvard tells me that the German Reformed Church, one of the predecessor bodies in the United Church of Christ, endured fierce debate over their liturgy in the 19th century, but somehow they stayed together. Can we stay together in covenant?

From a human point of view, it seems doubtful. And yet, how can we be a voice and witness to reconciliation in our society, to schools and businesses, to our decaying cities and streets of wrath, to marriages and families in turmoil and children at risk if we cannot live among ourselves? How are we to be ambassadors of reconciliation if our own household is at enmity?

The challenge before us for the days ahead and for a long time to come is to be the church, to live in such a way that we are a living witness to the message of reconciliation that has been given to us. This means tolerating a fairly high level of conflict for a long time. It will test our faith. We will need the gifts that God’s Spirit sends to the faithful. It will require that we tell the truth in love. It will require soul–searching and the capacity to give and accept forgiveness. In other words, it will mean being the church, which was never easy and isn’t easy now.

Formerly we may have regarded some people as our enemies and opponents, and perhaps they are as the world sees it. But from now on we are to regard no one from a human point of view, because if we believe our own gospel then “by God” there is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold the new has come. So we entreat you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, by the power God gives you “be reconciled to God” and be the church, the community of the reconciled. And be the church as hard as that is and as long as it takes, which may be a long long time. Which is perhaps why, before Jesus left the disciples, he promised to be with us even to the end of the age. Amen.

(A sermon to the Berkshire Association, United Church of Christ, Annual Meeting on April 21, 1996, meeting at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was, at the time, the Pastor.)

Where I Ruminate on the Cross and Christian Stewardship

I recently received notice that the theme for my state Conference’s annual meeting this fall will be “Generosity as a way of life.” A cynic might wonder if this is just another attempt to shore up the sagging finances that plague all the mainline denominations.

But the cynic should note that the theme of generosity is thoroughly biblical. This week’s epistle, for example, is from Second Corinthians, Chapter 8, which is a sort of proto-stewardship letter from the Apostle Paul.

The particular project Paul is raising funds for is a collection for the benefit of the church in Jerusalem. He has been traveling around Greece and Asia Minor visiting churches, many of which he founded, inviting them to give to this project. In this letter to the church in Corinth he describes to them the generosity of the Macedonians so as to shame and inspire them. Apparently Paul’s sometime traveling companion Titus has already been there and begun the collection among them, but perhaps with less than satisfactory results, given the need for this letter.

But Paul doesn’t only shame them into giving. He also encourages them with some flattery: “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Corinthians 8: 7) Paul knows what every wise parent or teacher knows, that encouragement often gets better results than shaming.

But neither shame nor flattery provides Paul’s best motivation for the Corinthians to be generous. What he wants to say that the Christian life by its very nature is a generous life and that generosity is rooted and grounded in gratitude for the gracious generosity of God in Jesus Christ. He writes them: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8 9)

Many years ago a member of my congregation came to me puzzled about this passage. “Is it true Jesus was rich?” Wasn’t he a humble carpenter?” I answered him that he was right that Jesus was not a rich man economically. But Paul is speaking metaphorically. When he says that Jesus was rich but became poor for us, he is referring to Jesus giving everything up on the cross. The language reminds us of Philippians 2: 5-11 where Jesus is depicted as emptying himself of his divine prerogatives and taking the form of a servant, humbling himself even to the point of death. That is “the generous act” Paul refers to. The word in Greek means “grace,” and earlier translations said, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I find it ironic that at the same time the mainline churches are admonishing generosity, a cottage industry debunking the cross is flourishing within their precincts. (see, for example, my The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?) I have read far too many ordination papers lately apologizing for the cross, and wonder if such a cross-less Gospel will make people feel generous?

Let me boldly suggest that a robust cross-centered Gospel may be the most efficient stewardship tool. Generosity doesn’t grow on its own, because it is a fruit, and not a root. The root is gratitude.

Isaac Watts’ hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” captures this sense of gratitude and its fruits in the last verse: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Can you imagine the nominating committee vetting stewardship callers by asking them about their doctrine of the atonement? I can’t either, but the thought amuses me.

The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?

A Paper delivered at the 25th Craigville Colloquy, July 2008
by Richard L. Floyd

This evening I want to address the question of whether the cross of Jesus Christ is implicated in the violence of our world. More specifically, does the church’s theology of the cross, expressed in its various views of atonement, contribute to fostering violence?

It is a question that arises out of my own experience in the church. In 1995 when I was living in St Andrew’s, Scotland, and working on what would later become my book on the atonement, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross:” Reflections on the Atonement, I wrote an essay on some of the objections to the idea of substitutionary atonement. At the end of the chapter I made note that there were some critics who felt that the cross itself was an emblem of violence, but I didn’t really address this view in depth, because frankly, I thought it was a fringe view without much merit. I still do.

But the view that the cross is an emblem of violence has been gaining traction in the last decade or so. There have been a spate of books addressing the issue, and in recent years I am hearing ordinands and new ministers repeating these views to the effect that the cross is not good news, but bad news.

Let me share some anecdotes. The first was at an ecclesiastical council a few years ago. The candidate told us that she didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement. “Fair enough,” I replied, since there have been some dubious ideas under that banner. “ But what do you then make of the death of Christ? “Christ’s death,” she said, “was the price he paid at the hands of the powerful for his advocacy of an inclusive community.” Admitting that it is at least that, I asked, “Then does the cross have any meaning for salvation?” “No!” was the answer.

The second was in a seminar on the atonement I gave a couple years ago to United Church of Christ (USA) ministers. During the Q and A in became clear to me that many of the ministers were uncomfortable with talk of the cross, and some found it offensive. One young man, a bright newly-minted UCC minister said, with some passion, “No good thing came from the cross.”

Finally, one Sunday in a UCC congregation I attended, the pastor announced that he had considered removing one of the hymns for the day because it suggested a substitutionary atonement, and that is an idea, he said, “that I reject and the church doesn’t need.” The hymn was “What wondrous love is this?”

There have always been critics of the cross. Paul writes the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthian 1:23)

What is troubling to me is that the attacks on the cross of recent years come from within the church. It comes from seminary professors, and increasingly from pastors. This should concern us, as such teaching and preaching against the cross confuses the faithful and saps the church of the vital nerve center of the faith that is so needed to meet the challenges of our age, including the problem of violence. I am convinced that this deep alienation from the core of our tradition is a symptom of a larger historical process profoundly described by Charles Taylor in his important book A Secular Age. But that makes it no less disturbing.

That violence has been done in the name of the cross cannot be denied. But the argument hinges on the distinction between whether the cross, in and of itself, is a cause of violence, or whether when violence is done in the name of the cross, it is a betrayal of the cross’s true meaning. I will be arguing for the latter, that where the cross is used to justify or induce violence it is a betrayal of the cross, which is the very soteriological center of God’s story of redeeming love to humankind.

It is an irony that I find myself defending the cross from the critics who say it causes violence, because it was a reaction to violence that profoundly influenced me to return to the Christian faith of my childhood as a young adult in the late 1960’s. I had been in Air Force ROTC in college for two years, and had qualified for pilot training, when the US started bombing Cambodia. At the age of twenty I went through an agonizing crisis of conscience, at the end of which I withdrew from ROTC.

In December of my junior year, in 1969, I dropped out of college, moved to New York City, got a job as a copyboy at Time-Life, and soon applied for Conscientious Objector status, with the help of some sympathetic Quakers.

Those were years of great violence in America, in urban centers and on college campuses, and I was stricken by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and by the continuing violence of the Vietnam War. The summer after my first year in college I had worked and lived at a funeral home, and we hosted the young soldiers who came as escorts with the bodies of the war dead from Vietnam.

This was the context in which I rediscovered Christian faith, with a cross at its center, as the only compelling story in which I could understand these events. A few years later, while I was in seminary, Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God was published. I still remember a line from the Introduction, which asked the question, “What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee deep in blood?” (Moltmann)

Jesus’ crucifixion itself is, of course, a horrific act of violence, but Christian faith, from its early days, has interpreted it as a divine act of reconciliation. My own view, influenced by my St Andrew’s tutor Richard Bauckham, is that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death from the beginning as an atoning, sacrificial death, and that was expressed in a pre-Markan kerygma that then shaped the Gospels. This view runs counter to the received liberal line that Paul created a soteriology missing from the earliest kerygma. Bauckham claims that the earliest Christology was the highest Christology.

I argued in my atonement book that ideas of sacrifice and substitution are both biblical and necessary to fully express the radical nature of this divine act of love. Now in the Evangelical camp this is widely accepted, and when I give my dog and pony show on the atonement in those circles, during the Q and A someone invariably says something like, “Yes! So!” Now there are various nuanced and sophisticated discussions in that world about the precise nature of the atonement. But I don’t have a horse in that race, because my more focused mission has been as a witness to the cross to the mainline, where the soteriological center of the Christian story is in danger of being lost. Gabe Fackre has taught us that we need to keep the whole story in view when we look at any part of it, and I think that is one of the problems that some of the critics of the cross have, in that they focus on the cross wrenched out of its larger narrative.

So while I am interested in theories of atonement, and want stronger rather than weaker arguments around the “what” of the cross, I want always to view it within the larger Christian story. So Jesus Christ who died on the cross “for us and for all humanity,” must be seen as the One who is “the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and who, as the divine Word, was at the beginning of creation, and will be at the end, on the Day he comes to judge the living and the dead.

But let us be clear that the cross is not just any part of the Christian story, but the very center and climax. And by the cross I mean more than just Golgotha, but, like Paul, I use “the cross” as a kind of theological shorthand to describe the whole soteriological center of the story as shown in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In that story I see an act of God, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death. Therefore, my view is that the work of Christ on the cross is constitutive for salvation and not merely illustrative of it. And it is this high view, with its lineage back to St. Anselm, which is particularly under attack from the critics of the cross.

So the shape of my paper will be to look at the views of those who consider the cross bad news, to tell you why they are wrong, and then to tell you why the word of the cross is good news indeed.


The chief criticism is that the cross is an act of violence against Jesus by God. Professor Dolores Williams of Union Theological Seminary, for example, wants to replace the cross with the mustard seed as the primary Christian symbol, because she views the cross as a symbol of violence, especially against woman and children.

Anabaptist theologian Denny Weaver sums it up it like this: “The motif of Jesus as the substitute object of punishment, which assumes the principle of retribution, is the particular image that feminists and womanists have found very offensive. It portrays God as the chief exacter of retribution. God punishes — abuses — one of God’s children for the sake of the others. And the Jesus of this motif models passive submission to innocent and unjust suffering for the sake of others.” (Weaver, Violence)

Some feminist and womanist writers also object to the passivity and submission of Jesus as encouraging the acceptance of violence to women by men.

Again Weaver says: “It is an unhealthy model for a woman abused by her husband or a child violated by her father, and constitutes double jeopardy when attached to hierarchical theology that asserts male headship. A model of passive, innocent suffering poses an obstacle for people who encounter conditions of systemic injustice, or an unjust status quo produced by the power structure. Examples might be the legally segregated south prior to the civil rights movement, or de facto housing segregation that still exists in many places; military-backed occupation, under which land is confiscated and indigenous residents crowded into enclosed territories, called “reservations” in North America and “bantustans” in South Africa and “autonomous areas” in Palestine. For people in such situations of an unjust status quo, the idea of “being like Jesus” as modeled by satisfaction atonement means to submit passively and to endure that systemic
injustice. ”

“James Cone linked substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression. Delores Williams calls the Jesus of substitutionary atonement, the “ultimate surrogate figure.” After depicting numerous ways in which black women were forced into a variety of surrogacy roles for white men and women and black men, Williams says that to accept satisfaction or substitutionary atonement and the image of Jesus that it supplies is to validate all the unjust surrogacy to which black women have been and still are submitted. ”

Weaver concludes “Such examples show that atonement theology that models innocent, passive suffering does have specific negative impact in the contemporary context.” (Weaver, Violence)


These views seem to me to say more about the hermeneutic of suspicion of the writers than the actual biblical narrative and the atonement theories that are their conceptual representations. After all, if you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope everything will look small.

I have come to believe that the church’s communal language in creed, doctrine and liturgy, and especially Scripture, from which the others are derived, is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms. Hans Frei was describing Karl Barth’s position when he said: “There can be no systematic ‘pre–understanding,’ no single, specific, consistently used conceptual scheme, no independent or semi–independent anthropology, hermeneutic, ontology or whatever, in terms of which Christian language and Christian claims must be cast to be meaningful.” (Frei, p 156). Which is to say that in the end it is the texts that judge us rather than the other way around.

So what is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the thickness of the scriptures. To do that there are some features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross.

1. Many of the critics do not have what George Hunsinger called “a robust view of sin.” It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree.”

So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of civilization, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best, which is a reminder of the pernicious nature of sin. So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens in our fallen sinful world. So when the fingers get pointed at who killed Jesus, the Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”

Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.” Toward the end of my ministry I started replying, well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have. Likewise, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but not the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.

2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I think it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”

But as Reinhold Neibuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. For example, in 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the so called “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Sometimes non-violence can be complicit with evil.

3. Many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver puts non-violence in such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.

This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The New York Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.

4. The critics don’t take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously enough. When we look at the cross theologically we must keep before us that it is Christ who died for our sins, not just any man, but the Jewish messiah. The pre-Markan kerygma behind the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why the New Testament has so many echoes from the Old Testament.

Crucifixions were a commonplace in the ancient Roman world, but the significance of this particular cross was the claim that it was God’s anointed who suffered and died. It was their own traditions that allowed these Jews to understand Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrificial death. For example, one of our earliest pericopes is 1 Cor. 15: 3ff where Paul rehearses the gospel that had been handed down to him that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” And the reason it could be understood thus was because the scriptures contained stories such as the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22, the description of a suffering servant in the Servant Psalms in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, and passages like Psalm 22, which has Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Without this Jewish context the cross is hard to understand properly.

5. The critics don’t take the Trinity seriously. Hans Frei’s definition of doctrines as “conceptual redescriptions of the biblical narrative” well describes the later Trinitarian understanding of the whole Christ event and its emphasis on the inter–dependence of the divine persons. Jesus’ experience of being abandoned by God, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act to which the Father intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a Trinitarian act of mutual consent in love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

This goes a long way to countering the charge that the cross is a symbol of violence, exploitation or even child abuse. A unitarian God who requires the sacrifice of the human Jesus is problematic, to say the least, but if we understand the obedient death of the Son as in some real sense a loving act in which it is God who dies for us, we move away from many problems.

The critics also say that substitutionary atonement means God is punishing Jesus. P. T. Forsyth made an important distinction here. He says the cross is penal, in that Jesus, though innocent, voluntarily takes on the sentence that we deserve. But though the cross is penal, it is not punishment, since Jesus is innocent. For what would the Father punish him? And how could the Father punish the Son, with whom he is always well pleased.”? (Forsyth)

Princeton theologian George Hunsinger, whose commitment to non-violence is well known, said this about the critics of the cross in an interview: “They’re bringing an alien framework of judgment to bear upon this. No one in the patristic period ever understood the cross as sanctioning violence and abuse. Nor did poor Anselm in the middle ages, who often has to take it in the neck for these things. I think that there are some fundamental problems in the way Anselm went about this question in Why God Became Human, but they’re not at this level. You actually put the question a bit wrongly, I think, as far as these recent critics are concerned. It’s an innocent human being that is tortured to death by a vindictive father in heaven. There is no Trinitarian frame for this, but there is certainly a Trinitarian frame in Anselm. This whole transaction occurs for him with inner Trinitarian consent. This is divine suffering for the sake of a larger good. The Father suffers as much as the Son in the power of the Spirit in Anselm, if we read him fairly and in the spirit of what he is offering. God’s redemptive suffering is undergone in love for the sake of the world.”(PTR Interview)

6. The critics have too limited a canon. Like Marcion, the second century heretic who made up his own canon, Luke is their favorite Gospel. Marcion had one Gospel and ten letters of Paul and no Old Testament. The critics of the cross share his love for Luke, but not for Paul, who (after God the Father) is their chief villain, for his cross-centered Gospel. We all have favorite Gospels, and I love Luke as much as the next person, but the thickness of the biblical story is partly a result of the richness and complexity of the canon.

7. Finally, the critics have an inadequate eschatology of the cross. Again we must understand the cross within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism, with its energetic eschatological expectations. The God of Israel was expected to act in the future. Second Isaiah, for example, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. The first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” (Bauckham, p 71.) The God who acted in the Exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When the church included Jesus, a human being, humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about the identity of God. In the dying and rising of Jesus, God had done a new thing that could only be adequately described in the language of Old Testament eschatology. It was the restoration from exile, the new creation, the healing of the rift between God and Israel and more. The titulus that Pilate put over Jesus’ head on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” Who could the king of the Jews be other than the messiah of God? Meant by Pilate as irony, the church could see the truth of it in light of their new faith that in Jesus Christ God had once again acted decisively as expected.


1. The cross is the death of ideology. The cross provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It calls into question any ideology that would use the Gospel to further its own ends. Anthony Thiselton has written: “The cross is a scandalous reversal of human expectations and values . . .. In the theology of the Fathers, as in that of Paul, the message of the cross challenged the corporate constructs, expectations, and wish fulfillments of communities or of individuals as a scandalous reversal of human expectations and values. Far from reflecting pre–existing social horizons, the cross and the resurrection gave birth to new horizons, which in turn effected a cross–contextual liberating critique and individual and social transformation. This is a far cry from the notion that communities can only project their own images onto texts, thereby to construct their meanings.” (Thiselton, p. 7)

The cross provides the church with a anti-ideological bias that protects the Gospel from being blown about by any number of contemporary cultural winds or co–opted by any number of alternative faiths, religious and secular. The cross also protects the church from both utopianism and cynicism, because it keeps in view that the resurrected one remains the crucified one.

Likewise, the cross helps the church to understand its life and discipleship in other ways than by the canons of success and power that the world so values. It teaches the church to recognize its true hope in the God who raised the dead from the illusory hopes the world holds out for both individuals in the face of death and for human history in the face of futility. I once heard William Sloane Coffin tell a group of pastors, “If you don’t want to be so disillusioned, don’t have so many illusions.” Christian faith which deemphasizes the cross is prone to just such disillusionment about its projects and hopes. But the cross functions as the critical principle that separates illusory hopes from the true hope that rests in trust in the God who raises the dead.

So the church is able to live in real hope only because the cross has taught it where properly to look for hope. Christian hope lies beyond all human endeavors and accomplishments and beyond all possibilities inherent in the natural world. Christians love the world God made and for which his Son gave his life, and we work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, we know that our true hope lies only in the God who raised the crucified, who is the God who raises the dead. Such hope transcends both personal death and cosmic futility. From the cross the crucified God reigns over the future, and his suffering love will overcome all things.

2. The cross shows God’s solidarity with all human suffering including suffering caused by human violence. On the cross Jesus suffers an agonizing death, but perhaps more than his physical suffering was the anguish he experienced by the total abandonment of the One he called Father, which he expresses when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46))

In this experience of abandonment Jesus knows solidarity with all human suffering, and if we take his divine nature seriously then God knows this, too, and in some sense experienced it on our behalf, and by doing so redeemed it, which we can only see in Easter hindsight. So not only did Jesus suffer (which is what passion means) but his suffering and death are not incidental to the glorious story of divine atonement and human redemption but quite literally crucial.

Now some of the critics charge that the cross exalts human suffering, and encourages people to accept it. We must admit that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive, and so we should be careful not to romanticize suffering. But suffering is such a universal feature of the human condition that surely it must be good news to know that our God understands our suffering, and in Jesus, was himself “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53)

3. The cross models forgiveness. From the cross Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” and in doing so embodies the loving mercy of God. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, “Without that (the cross of Jesus), we cannot begin to understand the forgiveness of sins. Jesus crucified is God crucified, so we believe. Jesus is the total and final embodiment in history of God’s loving mercy; and so this cross is a unique, terrible, extreme act of violence—a summary of all sin. It represents the human rejection of love. And not even that can destroy God: with the wounds of the cross still disfiguring his body, he returns out of hell to his disciples and wishes them peace.” (Jersak, p 216.)

This radical forgiveness is the only power that can break the cycles of revenge and retribution that fuel so much of our world’s violence. One of the most powerful moments of Christian witness in my lifetime was when Pope John Paul the Second forgave the man who had shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In 1983 he visited his assailant in prison and spoke privately with him for about 20 minutes. He later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”

How ironic it seems to me that the word of the cross is being accused of causing violence, when its message judges and condemns violence. Graham Toulmin has written, “The word of the cross is unique in the modern or postmodern world, as a discourse or metanarrative unlike any other. It will not allow Christians to impose their faith forcibly on others, instead waiting patiently for its truth to be recognized, suffering misunderstanding and disdain before it will retaliate or compel. It is a metanarrative, a Truth with a capital “T/’ but a humble, patient one. In a world justifiably nervous that absolute truths are inherently violent and oppressive, a cross-centered Christianity offers an absolute Truth which by its very nature denies coercion as a way to assert itself. Instead, it offers and forms a community dedicated to learning ways of love for enemies, forgiveness and hospitality to the “other” which promises a way forward for a fragmented and frightened world. ” (Toulmin)

4. The cross is all about God’s love. When I began I mentioned the hymn “What wondrous love is this?” That rhetorical question gets to the heart of the matter. Pope Benedict XVI first encyclical is called God is Love, which comes from 1 John 4:8. In it the Pope describes God’s love as an active love. He writes: “When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.”

When we look at the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, they more often than not reference the cross as the chief evidence. For example, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Or Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or Romans 8:31, 32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

And not just in Scripture, but in our traditions, too, we see a cross-centered understanding of God’s love. So the Heidelberg Catechisms beloved first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is answered thus: “That I belong– body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins…so that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation… he also assures me of eternal life….”

“What wondrous love is this?” Far from being the cause of violence the word of the cross is God’s love at work, and only that love offers healing and wholeness to our broken world.

It is true that the word of the cross is not a word everyone will hear. As Paul wrote the Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23ff)


St. Anselm of Canterbury. Cur Deus Homo. E. T. by E. R. Fairweather, in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Library of Christian Classics X. London: SCM Press, 1956.

Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV.1. Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1956.

Mary C. Boys. “The Cross: Should a Symbol Betrayed Be Reclaimed?” Cross Currents, Spring 1994.

Bauckham, Richard. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Dalferth, Ingolf U. “The Eschatological Roots of the Doctrine of the Trinity” in Trinitarian Theology Today. Ed. Christoph Schwöbel. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Floyd, Richard L. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. San Jose: Pickwick Press, 2000.

Floyd, Richard L. “Review of God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament” by Richard Bauckham. Theology Today. Vol. 58, No. 1, April 2001

Floyd, Richard L. “The Cross as an Eschatological Act of God.” In Hope for the Future: Theological Voices from The Pastorate. William H. Lazareth, Editor, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

P. T. Forsyth. The Work of Christ. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.

Frei, Hans. Types of Christian Theology. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gowan, Donald E. Eschatology in the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987.

Colin Gunton. The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988

Hunsinger, George. “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Jersak, Bard and Hardin, Michael, Editors. Stricken by God: Non-Violent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.

Newbigin, Leslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Thiselton, Anthony. New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap Press. 2007.

Toulmin, Graham. “The Uniqueness of Christ’s Suffering and Death on the Cross” in Christ the One and Only: a Global affirmation of the Uniqueness of Christ, Sung Wook Chung, editor Paternoster and Baker Academic, 2005.

Van Buren, Paul M. According to the Scriptures: The Origins of the Gospel and of the Church’s Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Weaver, J. Denny. The Non-Violent Atonement, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Weaver, J. Denny. “Violence in Christian Theology” Cross Currents. Summer 2001, Vol. 51, No 2.

Weder, Hans. “Hope and Creation.” John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds. The End of the World and the Ends of God, Science and Theology on Eschatology. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000.

Book Review of “God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament” by Richard Bauckham

God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament
By Richard Bauckham
Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999. 79 pp. $12.00.

Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, is perhaps best known for his studies of the book of Revelation and for his commentaries on Jude and 2 Peter. He is also a thoughtful theologian who has written an introduction to the theology of Jirgen Moltmann. God Crucified displays the craft of both a careful exegete and a deft theologian as Bauckham explores the riddle of how the radically monotheistic Jews who composed the earliest church could have come to call Jesus “Lord.”

His argument turns much of mainstream christology, which has often assumed that a high christology is both a later development and incompatible with Jewish monotheism, on its head. According to Bauckham, “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology,” a theology of divine identity that focuses on “who God is” rather than on what “divinity” is. In the Jewish monotheism of the Second Temple, the identity of God was understood by analogy with human identity, which includes both character and personal story. This unique identity had two key features: (1) God as the creator of all things and (2) God as the sovereign ruler over all things. God is also identified by God’s acts in Israel’s history, especially in the exodus, and by the character description God gives to Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). The acts of God and the character of God together identify God as the one who acts graciously towards his people.

This God, then, by his very identity, was expected to act in the future. For example, Second Isaiah, an important source for early Christians, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. So the first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” The God who acted in the exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When the church included Jesus, a human being humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about God’s identity. Nevertheless, the novelty of God crucified did not betray the identity of the God of Israel. On the contrary, as the early church examined the Scriptures it could find consistency in the novelty. It found the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ to be one and the same God.

Bauckham helps us understand early Jewish monotheism as the context for New Testament christology. On one hand, he takes issue with “strict” approaches, which claim that only a radical break with Jewish monotheism could allow for the attribution of divinity to Jesus. On the other hand, he rejects “revisionist” approaches, which focus on intermediary figures– principal angels, exalted humans, and the like-as models by which to understand the divinity attributed to Jesus. Bauckham also maintains a strict view of monotheism but argues that a high christology was possible precisely within a strict monotheism by identifying Jesus directly with the God of Israel. Bauckham rejects the second view as being unimportant for the study of christology, for the intermediary figures were never worshipped. He understands the presence of divine attributes such as word and wisdom as expressions of God’s identity and not separate creatures. They demonstrate, he believes, that Second Temple Judaism does not find distinctions in the divine identity inconceivable or threatening to divine uniqueness.

Such a christology of divine identity helpfully moves us beyond functional and ontic understandings. A functional christology, in which Jesus exercises the functions of lordship without being ontically divine, would have been problematic for Jewish monotheism, since the unique sovereignty of God was not something God could delegate to someone else. The ontological approach has often assumed that while early Jewish monotheists could speak of divine functions when speaking of Jesus, they shied away from speaking of divine nature, something that only later patristic development spelled out. Against this view, Bauckham shows that throughout the New Testament there are clear and deliberate uses of the unique, divine identity to include Jesus. Bauckham’s christology of divine identity offers a proper way to understand the New Testament within its Jewish monotheistic context by including Jesus, cross and all, within the unique identity of Israel’s God.

Richard L. Floyd.

(This review first appeared in Theology Today in April 2001, in a slightly edited form that eliminated my masculine personal pronouns for deity, an editorial practice I find stylistically awkward, theologically problematic, and troublesome to free speech. This is closer to what I originally wrote.)

Tom Wright Answers the Caricatures of the Cross

One of my persistent vocations is answering the critics of the cross. See for example, my The Cross and Violence, Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?, a paper I gave at last summer’s Craigville Colloquy on Cape Cod.

So I was gratified to find this piece by N.T Wright, Bishop of Durham, in Fulcrum, from 2007, The Cross and the Caricatures.

Here’s a sample:“We must of course grant that many Christians have spoken, in effect, of the angry God upstairs and the suffering Jesus placating him. Spoken? They’ve painted it: many a mediaeval altarpiece, many a devotional artwork, have sketched exactly that. And of course for some late mediaeval theologians this was the point of the Mass: God was angry, but by performing this propitiatory sacrifice once more, the priest could make it all right. And it was at least in part in reaction against this understanding of the Eucharist that the Reformers rightly insisted that what happened on the cross happened once for all. They did not invent, they merely adapted and relocated, the idea of the propitiation of God’s wrath through the death of Jesus.

We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have since then offered more caricatures of the biblical doctrine. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’.”

Where I Ruminate on the Perils of a Palm Sunday Faith in a Good Friday World

There is a kind of decaffeinated Christianity that wants to quickly slide by Good Friday and get right to Easter, as if Good Friday is a morbid and somewhat unfortunate episode that is dwelt upon only by the morbid and masochistic. Or to put it another way, we are tempted to have a Palm Sunday faith, a faith based on a misunderstanding of who Jesus is.

Like the crowd at the first Palm Sunday we are tempted to see Jesus not as he is, but as a projection of our own hopes and desires. We can do this in a number of ways. We can turn Jesus into the supporter of our personal goals, or the upholder of our national ambitions, or our politics, or other ways where he becomes who we want him to be instead of who he really is. “Palm Sunday faith” is when we want a Jesus without a cross so we can have a faith without a cross, a faith without challenge or sacrifice, a faith without testing or struggle. When we do that we turn God into a kind of talisman or lucky charm to bless our projects and our aspirations, when in fact the God of the Bible is a God with his own sovereign purposes.

The problem with a Palm Sunday faith is that we live in a Good Friday world.I believe that Christian faith is essentially a joyful enterprise, but it is a joyful enterprise that doesn’t turn or flinch from the hard truths of the world’s harsh brutalities. So Christian faith without a cross does not show God’s full power to deal with human sin and death. And a faith without a cross will be found feeble and wimpy when the chips are really down.

What do I mean when I say it is a Good Friday world? There is a certain heartbreaking aspect of living that comes to us all. Often we only see it from a distance, as in the war in Iraq, where we have seen pictures both of dead and injured civilians and dead servicemen and women. But to the families of those individuals that heartbreak has come “up close and personal.” And some heartbreak comes to every human life sooner or later.

It is not just in wartime that the powers of sin and death do their heartbreaking work. Which is why there is so much comfort for us in worshipping a God who himself “became a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

And that is exactly it. Our God knows the whole truth about human life. Knows not just the Sunday veneer and the masks of propriety but the dark and sad parts of it all. Knows that life is not a bowl of cherries. And this God not only knows the worst the world has to offer, but he has done something about it. His love is not sentimental love; it is holy love, a love that moves and acts to deal with love’s enemies.

A God who merely comforted the afflicted and bound up the wounded would not be a God who takes on the power of sin and death and evil. That is what the cross of Jesus is all about. God himself confronting human life at is very worst, at its most irredeemable, at a pitiful state execution, where the most powerful forces in the world humiliated and destroyed this humble innocent man.

He took it all on himself, the whole weight of the world’s hate and violence, its guilt and shame, all of it there on the hill at Golgotha. For us: you and me, and not just for us, but for everyone, across the ages. And not just for humans, but for himself, because his own holiness could not tolerate the world’s sin without atonement. And so he made it, not with the blood of rams at the temple, but making the sacrifice himself, spilling his own life out.

And why? Because that is what love does. By its very nature love spills itself out. In the letter to the Philippians Paul says that Jesus even gave up his own rightful claim to divinity, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, for the cross was a slave’s death.And because of this humble obedience the Father has highly exalted him, and has given him God’s own name. Because “Lord” is the name Israel gave to their God, and to no one else.

But now Jesus is called “Lord.”When we call Jesus “Lord” and take the full measure of his love we will be moving toward a faith that can meet life’s darkest hours and toughest spots. A faith that is able to stand at the foot of the cross. And the world desperately needs people like that with faith like that: faith in Jesus, and in the power of his cross.

“He Died Upon the Lonely Tree” A Passion Hymn

“He Died Upon the Lonely Tree”
C. M.

He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
And yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.

The world will never know his worth,
the wise will never see,
But those forsaken, broken, bowed,
will recognize that tree.

And know that there God’s love does reign,
and conquers sin and death;
Thwarts hate and evil, comforts pain,
gives hope while there is breath.

The nations grasp at wealth and power,
while wars like tempests toss,
But finally in God’s good hour,
they’ll know him in his cross.

Then wars will cease and weapons fall,
and fear will melt away.
For Christ will be their all in all,
from day to endless day.

Suggested tune: Bangor

© 2001 Richard L. Floyd