What does the cross of Christ reveal?

Welker ChristologyOne of the joys of teaching a christology unit this semester has been the excuse that it has occasioned to getting around to reading Michael Welker’s book God the Revealed: Christologya book that’s been sitting relatively untouched on my shelves for a few years now. The chapters are short, intelligent, and deeply engaging. In other words, they are a busy teacher’s dream. In one of them, titled ‘The Cross Reveals Not Only the Suffering, but also the Judging and Saving God’, Welker offers seven claims about the significance of the cross as revelation. They’re worth sharing, not only because it offers a taste of Welker’s style, but also because his summary statements (in bold) are just such a wonderful witness to the evangelical faith of the church:

  1. The cross reveals the terrifying, godforsaken situation of human beings, a situation they themselves, however, do not recognise as such. The representative world, in a curious mixture of anxiety, fear, and aggressivity, turns against God’s presence in the life and ministry of Jesus. ‘The cross’, says Welker, ‘discloses a situation that could not but plunge the world into profound despair were the world truly to grasp it; as it is, however, the world is able simply to pass over or disregard it in dull unconsciousness, with a shrug of the shoulders, or even gleefully. The cross of Christ is the expression of the godforsaken condition of human beings, a condition they yet try to disguise even though they themselves have brought it about’.
  2. The cross reveals the diastasis of God and humankind, God and world. It ‘calls into question or … even puts an end to any and all lighthearted theologies that make their peace with the “dear Lord,” that try to engage God and human beings in a kind of enduring but unproblematic partnership, or that otherwise propagate a peaceful ongoing relationship between God and human beings’.
  3. The cross reveals the profundity of the sin of the world. It stands for the triumph of the powers of the world over the presence and revelation of God. It reveals that our efforts to understand sin solely or principally in individual terms dangerously downplay the cosmic and violent character of the powers that both parade and masquerade themselves under the guise of religion, law, politics, and public morality. In light of the cross, ‘it becomes clear’, says Welker, ‘that even God’s “good law” can turn into an instrument of lies and deception under the power of sin. Jesus Christ is crucified in the name of religion, of global power politics, with reference to both Jewish and Roman law, and with the approval or even under the pressure of public opinion’.
  4. The cross reveals the danger that God’s revelation might not reach human beings because God may well withdraw from them. Drawing here upon Eberhard Jüngel’s work, Welker argues that what emerges in the cross ‘is the serious danger that God and world, God and humankind, “have died to each other” in a wholly disastrous sense’; i.e., in the sense that ‘this person is dead for me – I have absolutely no relationship or connection with this person now, nor do I want any’. The cross reveals that God has delivered human beings ‘over to their own [nothingness]. The cross not only reveals the danger that the world might close itself seamlessly off from God, utterly renouncing or even taking up a posture of opposition against God, it also reveals the danger that God, too, might no longer seek and find access to that very world’. It exposes the dreadful possibility that the cry of dereliction – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – is in fact the last and most truthful assessment of the situation, both for creation and for God.
  5. The cross, however, also reveals God’s own suffering; it reveals not only the suffering of Jesus Christ, but also that of the triune God who through the sending of Jesus simultaneously seeks to reveal God’s proximity to human beings. Again drawing on Jüngel, Welker refers to this as ‘God’s inner disruption or as disruption within God. Through the cross, God is confronted with the death and sin of the world in a way that calls into question not only Jesus’s life, but also the divine life itself’.
  6. The cross reveals the abyss in which the very deity of God is most profoundly called into question. Here, ‘the creative God is confronted with chaos’, and that confrontation ‘reveals a suffering or impotence on God’s part’ which resides ‘deep within the deity itself’.
  7. Insofar as the cross reveals God’s pain and impotence, so also does the inner communion between Creator, Spirit, and Jesus Christ become discernible over against a world that closes itself off from God. The One revealed in the cross is the One who has ‘entered into the abyss of human misery and horror, subjecting itself not only to natural death, but also to the abyss of extreme separation from God, which various biblical traditions call “hell”. The cross reveals God’s descent into hell. It reveals that God … is no stranger to hell, that God suffers from hell and allows the divine life itself, in the figure of the crucified Resurrected [sic], to be enduringly characterized by this very suffering’. From eternity into eternity, the cross reveals the divine love that suffers for the other.

Finishing creation


Crucifixion Lorenzo Monaco

II. What if James Alison is right? What if …

‘… Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it …

This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai – it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death’.

– James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 54–55.

Could it be true? Could this be the promise made to a dying thief? And to a grieving mother who now had new responsibilities?

III. Christop Booth, in his Good Friday drawings, tells the story that we remember on this day like this:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



Pathetic Christmases

Happy Christmas to all readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem. Here’s PT Forsyth singing his constant song, and reminding us again of why today the Church might sing Joy to the World, and of the ‘wonders of [God’s] love’ :

‘Without [the] cross and its Atonement we come to a religion of much point but no atmosphere, much sympathy and no imagination, much kindness and no greatness, much charm and no force—a religion for the well-disposed and not for the rebel, in which we love our neighbour, but not our enemy, and not our Judge; a religion for the sensitive, but not for the world. When the world-cross goes out of the centre of religion, religion in due time goes out of the centre of man’s moral and public energy. The public then goes past the preacher because he is not strong enough to arrest and compel them. He has too much to say and too little to tell. He hangs to his age by its weakness, and not by its strength. He does not reach its soul with such gospel as he has. The pathos of Christ takes the place of his power. We canonise the weak things of our Christian world in our haste for rapid success with the many. Religion becomes too aesthetic, too exclusively sympathetic, too bland, too naturalistic. Our very Christmas becomes the festival of babyhood, Good Friday the worship of grief, and Easter of spring and renewal instead of regeneration. To use the old theological language, under an obsession of culture and its pensive delicacies we become dominated by the passive obedience of Christ instead of His active. We treat the cross as a passion only, instead of a principle, or as a moral principle instead of a decisive deed. Christ becomes a pathetic, tender, helpful and gracious figure rather than a mighty … But the great dividing issue for the soul is neither the Bethlehem cradle nor the empty grave, nor the Bible, nor the social question. For the Church at least (however it be with individuals) it is the question of a redeeming atonement. It is here that the evangelical issue lies. It is here, and not upon the nativity, that we part company with the Unitarians. It is here that the unsure may test their crypto-unitarianism. I would unchurch none. I would but clear the issue for the honest conscience. It is this that determines whether a man is Unitarian or Evangelical, and it is this that should guide his conscience as to his ecclesiastical associations. Only if he hold that in the atoning cross of Christ the world was redeemed by holy God once for all, that there, and only there, sin was judged and broken, that there and only there the race was reconciled and has its access to the face and grace of God—only then has he the genius and the plerophory of the Gospel. If he hold to Christ as this head, then, whatever views he may hold on other heads, he is of the Gospel company and the Evangelical pale. Only thus has he a real final message for the age. Only thus is he more than one that has a lovely voice and can play well on an instrument for the ages’ pleasure and its final neglect’.

– PT Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 27, 73–4.


‘Identification’, by Geoffrey Bingham

William Congdon, "Crucifixion No.2", 1960

In the dark reaches of Golgotha’s anguish,
His cold and nerveless hands—
Heavy with the pain of entire human sin,
And all cosmic evil (embracing all time)—
Reached out in a purposeful groping,
An attempted desire to reach,
Reach me, the lonesome, loathsome object
Of his insistent love.

In that moment I knew—in the moment of pain
And the high, wild cry—I knew he had embraced me,
Become me wholly as I was in my dream,
In my ineluctable anger and hate,
With all the dark deceits of my heart.

Me he became, and he anguished
As the intolerable pollution spread
Across the pure reaches of his holy self,
Drawing there out of me
The evil that was mine alone.

In the soft silence of his tomb I lay,
One with him in the unconquerable peace,
And with him I rose
When the world dawned new,
And I was the new man.

— Geoffrey C. Bingham, ‘Identification’, in All Things of the Spirit (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1997), 1.

Henri Blocher on evil, the cross, and hope

Recently, I’ve been posting on the mystery of suffering and evil (see here, here, here, here and here). And then Kim Fabricius reminded me of Henri Blocher’s Evil and the Cross, a book that I had placed on my bibliography but hadn’t read for many years. It was good to revisit it (thanks Kim!). Here’s a few snipperts:

“The agony of the Christian mind wrestling with the problem of evil seems at first sight a sign of weakness. Is it not an admission of its inability to resolve the principal objection, its powerlessness even to begin chipping away at the ‘rock of atheism’? On reflection, however, we would suggest that things appear differently.

If we bowed to the incomprehensible as a way out every time that we found ourselves in difficulties, there would be grounds for suspicion about such a procedure – it would be sheer irresponsibility, the abdication of reason. People are too ready to fall back on the action of ‘mystery’, and also to confuse mystery with the absurd – which Scripture never does. But we would argue that the mystery of evil is the one unique inscrutable mystery, as unique as evil itself, sui generis. Far from being absurd, it corresponds precisely with the experience of evil, with its two facets: unjustifiable–reality …

We may take these thoughts further. The sense of evil requires the God of the Bible. In a novel by Joseph Heller, ‘while rejecting belief in God, the characters in the story find themselves compelled to postulate his existence in order to have an adequate object for their moral indignation’. Moltmann too has perceived that you suppress all protest against suffering, if you suppress God: ‘Since that time no atheism can fall below Job’s level’. When you raise this standard objection against God, to whom do you say it, other than this God? Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?

We do not understand the why of evil. But we can understand that we cannot understand. Human reason is made to trace the connections in God’s created order, and to weave harmonious patterns from them; to understand means to integrate. A rational solution to the problem of evil would necessarily imply that evil was an integral part of the harmony that came forth from God! Similarly, to go back from sin to its ‘real possibility’, before it came into the world, means applying to it the logic of continuity which obtains in the processes of the creation. But evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms (except negatively!). Seeking its causal explanation, its ontological reason, its why, is tantamount to seeking, by the very nature of that seeking, to reconcile it with the rest, in other words to justify it. (The ‘rest’ is in fact what is ‘just’.) To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil. The French have a saying, that to understand all is to forgive all; here, understanding all would mean to excuse everything.

Evil is not there to be understood, but to be fought. The absence of any solution to the theoretical problem of the emergence of evil is one side of the coin; the other side, something still more precious than righteous indignation, is the solution to the practical problem of the suppression of evil. What you appear to lose on the speculative level you gain on the existential level. And we have in mind particularly the far horizon of the practical task, the end of evil, something of far greater interest than its origin. Then will end the cries of ‘How long?’ which express a far heavier burden than the cries of ‘Why?’ … If beneath the outward appearance of evil there were hidden something good, why would anyone want to see it disappear? If God were not sovereign, how would he bring under his control what is not dependent on him? If God concealed darkness within himself, how would it not be eternal, like him? But ‘God’s solid foundation stands firm’ (2 Tim. 2:19). When wild hopes disappear into thin air, the foundation of hope comes into view, the sovereignty of the God who fights against evil, and who invites us to join him in the battle.

God battles with evil, and will conquer it. Or rather, God has battled with it and he has conquered it. We have kept the supreme consideration to the end: that other ‘T’ formed by two small beams of wood on the hill called Golgotha, Skull Hill. There the darkness of the mystery deepened, from the sixth hour until the ninth, the place from which shines forth the light.

In the light of the cross, how could there be any doubt about the three propositions [the evil of evil, the lordship of the Lord, the goodness of God; see p. 100] at the heart of the Christian position? The sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated there: as hatred in the mockery of the criminals who also hung there; as hateful in the weight of guilt which could be removed only by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Even if I think of the benefits for myself, when I see my Lord suffering there, I cannot say: Felix culpa. Rather, I feel shame and indignation, against evil and against myself. The complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated there: all this happened ‘by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23), for it was necessary that the Scriptures be fulfilled, those which bore witness to the destiny that the Lord had assigned to his Servant. If there is a revolting ‘scandal’, it is unquestionably that of Judas’s betrayal, and like the squalid reconciliation of Herod and Pilate it accomplished ‘what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (Acts 4:28). Of no other event is it attested so fully that God ‘willed’ it. The unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated there. At the cross, who would dare entertain the blasphemy of imagining that God would, even to the slightest degree, comply with evil? It brought him death, in the person of his Son. Holiness stands revealed. Love stands revealed, a pure love; there is no love greater. Because of the cross we shall praise his goodness, the goodness of his justice, the goodness of his grace, through all eternity. At the cross, God turned evil against evil and brought about the practical solution to the problem. He has made atonement for sins, he has conquered death, he has triumphed over the devil. He has laid the foundation for hope.

What further demonstration do we need? …

Just as evil still torments people, casting a dark cloud over their happiness, polluting and plaguing their mind and conscience, so too the problem of evil remains without any rational solution. It is stuck fast in their mind like a thorn, even when that mind has been renewed by grace and belongs to the most faithful disciple … If we look to remove the thorn completely, we simply drive it in deeper, and a poisonous abscess forms, that of some kind of deceitful Gnosticism. The explanations put forward by theologians with the very best of intentions simply amount to concealing the real evil of evil and titivating its ugly horror, even when they do not go so far as to insult the pain of the victims by providing the criminals with excuses. Holy Scripture alone completely resists this temptation. The Bible says nothing which might in the least measure diminish the offence of evil; it refuses any attenuation, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Such faultlessness … is nothing short of miraculous and deserves our notice; it indicates a source of inspiration which is of a different kind from human reflection. What have we discovered?

At the heart lies the inscrutable mystery of the first appearance of evil. Why? How? Where does it come from? It cannot be explained by being made an initial ingredient of existence, or the price that has to be paid, on our microscopic scale, for universal harmony. These so-called solutions, which cut the nerve of human indignation and give cheap relief to the sense of guilt, run straight into the testimony of Scripture. The Lord God is preparing to judge a world that is overflowing with all kinds of abomination – he does not underestimate the gravity of what is intolerable – but on the sixth day of the creation he had rejoiced to behold a created world which ‘was very good’. It contained not the slightest embryonic presence of evil, since it was in its entirety ‘from him and through him and to him’. From the source of goodness there could not flow anything that was bitter (cf. Jas. 3:12). Even less could it be conceived that God would become the accomplice of evil by raising it up for the purpose of acting as his instrument or as a convenient foil.

Then, if it is true that evil arises from the misuse of created freedom, that of the devil and then that of human beings, that does not give us any final explanation either. How was evil born of a freedom that was good? To argue that evil is there and therefore was possible, and that doing evil was a real possibility arising from that freedom, is to cover up the discontinuity of that singular fact – singularly singular. It is completely to pass over its monstrous unwarrantedness; evil is already interpreted as a natural ingredient of existence, if it is taken as something that is consistent with goodness. Scripture bears the opposite testimony, and denies that the human will may ever become independent of God. It is God who rules his creation as sovereign, in accordance with his own design, according to the revelation he has given us in his Word written, even the choices that are aimed against him. The sovereignty of God, which is affirmed times without number in his own revelation, makes his permission of evil an impenetrable mystery.

Divine sovereignty, however, is indispensable to the denunciation of evil, for it alone can guarantee the order with respect to which evil is denounced as disorder. It is short-sightedness together with an absent-minded dash of anthropomorphism which plays with the empty notion of a form of divine sovereignty to which God himself has set limits. It is better to observe that the three branches of the capital T of the biblical doctrine, i.e. the abhorrent nature of evil, the goodness of God, and his absolute sovereignty, assign to evil its position of utter loathsomeness, of being an unjustifiable reality, and ratifies our initial, wholesome reaction against it of shame and indignation.

When we join the book of Job and the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans by forgoing the rational explanation of the origin of evil, we find ourselves moving on to the answer to the question, ‘What is evil?’ It is, of course, formally defined as something that is contrary to the will of God and yet permitted by him; but if we ask what is its ‘essence’, its ‘nature’, the elucidation runs up against the impenetrability of the mystery. The phenomenon does not belong to the order of the creation; neither is it an independent principle, for it draws its force from the created realm that it corrupts. It is neither really ‘something’ (for it is not from God, from whom all things come forth), nor really ‘nothing’. It is neither a metaphysical datum nor a surface effect that can be easily dispersed. Georges Florovsky commented on this radically disturbing alienness in these terms:

Evil is divided within itself; it is a discord and a disharmony, inordinatio. Evil is ambiguous, unstable, variable. It has no character of its own … Nature itself is affected, nature itself is no longer pure. It is a dynamic disorder, a dynamic or functional perversion which is not yet consolidated in a metaphysical transformation … The existence of evil is a parasitic existence, evil lives by means of good, ex ratione boni. The elements are the same in the original world and the fallen world. But the organizing principle has changed. And although it is dynamic, the perversion is irreversible. Whoever has gone down into the abyss of evil, of his own will, is unable to climb back out.

Here again, theological analysis agrees with the simple experience of ordinary people.

The absence of any theoretical solution … opens the way for the practical answer to the question: ‘Lord, how long? The three inseparable biblical truths form the springboard of hope. They alone authorize us to expect the suppression of evil. But the inscrutable enigma puts forth a horrifying new shoot, which lengthens into the persistence of evil, even its revival, after the death and resurrection of Christ. If the Messiah has come, the Saviour, if he has won the victory over evil, if he has set up his kingdom, how are we to account for the succeeding nineteen centuries? Could the kingdom not have reached us, in spite of Matthew 12:28?

A ray of light pierces the gloom. It comes from the cross. The impenetrable mystery of evil meets the paradoxical mystery of the cross. The mystery of Golgotha is that of the darkness which turns to light, as the Psalmist said, for God and for us – for us by God (Ps. 139:11f.). We understand that we cannot understand, and even a little more. At the cross we find the verification of God’s mastery over evil, of his incorporating it within his plan, of his using evil men, and of his freedom from all suspicion of complicity in it. The mere mention of this last hypothesis, even though it is made in order to brush it aside, is profoundly disturbing, as if we were on the verge of blaspheming. At the cross we find confirmation that evil does not belong metaphysically to the condition of the human race; to a catastrophe in history, God reacts in human history. At the cross is revealed how his kingdom comes about: not by might (of weaponry), or by power (of worldly means), but by the Spirit of sacrifice (Zc. 4:6); not by the subjection of multitudes to slavery, in the manner of the great rulers of this world, but by the service of the Son of Man (Mt. 20:25–28); for the kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). The way of the kingdom requires that it spread most unobtrusively, by spiritual influence. It conquers people’s hearts, by their unconstrained acceptance of, and adherence to, the Word, its preaching and its call. Hence the stay of execution for the old world, the permission of continuing evil, and the margin of freedom left to the devil who is giving vent to his great fury, for he is aware how little time he has left (Rev. 12:12). Hence the association of the kingdom with the suffering and the patient endurance in Jesus (Rev. 1:9).

But why is the kingdom set up in such a way, if another way could have spared so much weeping, so much bloodshed? We have come to the threshold of the secret and hidden wisdom, revealed by the Spirit, in words taught by the Spirit, and that none of the rulers of this age understood, what has not been conceived by any human mind (1 Cor. 2:7ff.). We have a special wisdom to seek out in the mystery of the cross. Not that this mystery gives us leave to overturn the concepts of orthodox Christian doctrine, such as downplaying the omnipotence of God as stated in Holy Scripture (after the death of Christ, as well as before it), and promoting a ‘powerless God’; that is the kind of ‘wisdom’ that the rulers of this age endorse. The Pied Piper philosophers of our world will gladly take that path, reflecting as it does the vagaries of their humanism, their ideological manoeuvres and their all too human resentment. The wisdom of God in the event of the cross maintains its unique, concrete character, spelt out with total clarity by what the cross achieved: perfect redemption and propitiation. In short, at the cross evil is conquered as evil.

The wisdom of the way of the cross is that it attacks evil according to the ambiguity of its unique nature, and its illegitimate status. If evil simply boiled down to the ‘local’ imperfection of every finite being, exaggerated by an optical illusion, Christ would have had to do no more than teach, or else initiate his disciples into the liberating vision, like a Zen master; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner. If evil were a substance, an entity, comparable to some great power in the created order, it would have been sufficient to deploy a superior force against it, assuming that the opposing parties had enough in common for such a meeting to be conceivable; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner.

At this point a misunderstanding arises for some people. They imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak of the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption and dissolution. Scripture is careful to avoid these misleading images. It speaks of the evil one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev. 12:10ff; Col. 2:14f.).

Lastly, if evil corresponded to a necessary moment in the forward movement of a dialectical sequence of events, it would be left behind by its own progression to a higher synthesis. But evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered. Good Friday is anything but speculative. The free sacrifice, unique and once for all, is the reverse of the illustration of the fruitfulness of the Negation in a universal chain of logic. At the cross evil is conquered as evil: corruption, perversion, disorder, a parasite, and yet also weighed down with the load of the people it has led astray and deep in debt from the responsibility incurred.

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The manoeuvre is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. God responds in the indirect way that is perfectly suited to the ambiguity of evil. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent. So is fulfilled the surprising verse: ‘With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse’ (Ps. 18:26, NRSV).

It is exactly this, the sin of sins, the murder of the Son, which accomplishes this work in a double manner. It provides the opportunity for love to be carried to its very peak, for there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (Jn. 15:13). And as this gift contains no element of a romantic suicide (like Tristan or Romeo), the death unjustly inflicted becomes the ‘wages’ earned by the sin of the world, borne by the Lamb of God. It constitutes the ransom paid to liberate sinners, for they are prisoners of the law of God, the One who is Son of God and Son of Man, the head of the new humanity taking upon himself the debt of his own people (Mt. 20:28; Gal. 3:13, 21; Col: 2.14, etc.). It is in this way that he triumphs over sin, guilt and death. It involves a double coincidence. Evil culminates in murder; by taking away the life of the other person, sin brings about the successful conclusion of its essential intention, the rejection of the Lord and of whoever bears his image. By contrast love, which is ‘being for the other person’, culminates in the gift of one’s own life in favour of someone else. Furthermore, the requirement of right order, which is the order of love according to God, is that evil be punished by death, but it permits the brother and head to intervene in love and take over the debt in place of the guilty party. Here lies the mystery of the victory:

I see the depths of my pride, curiosity, concupiscence. There is no link between me and God or Jesus Christ the righteous. But I he was made sin for me. All your scourges fell upon him. He is more abominable than I, and, far from loathing me, feels honoured that I go to him and help him. But he healed himself and will heal me all the more surely [Pascal].

The secret and hidden wisdom of the Lord has caused to coincide the ignoble murder and the act of supreme love of the righteous for the unrighteous, the expiation, by his death in their place, of their sins. At the cross, evil is conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

A more elaborate treatment of evil would expose, in addition to its reversal (the suppression of the other person), the twisted leer of counterfeit love, false love, love in which the warped outlines are still recognizable. It would also show how death, the secret goal of sin from the very beginning (Jn. 8:44; Rom. 8:6), is of necessity the retribution that befalls it, rather than any other punishment; and also how the primacy of love, which is the foundation of humanness, permits the transfer of responsibility. It would thus further elucidate the connection between Calvary and the problem of evil. But we have seen enough to recognize in the mystery of the cross the divine answer to the unanswerable question of evil: de profundis, ‘out of the depths’ (Ps. 130:1), springs light, despite the impenetrability of the enigma.

Such is the glory of the cross that one would be tempted to explain the permission of evil by this end, that love, put to the test, reveals itself in its ultimate intensity. One last time, we must resist the attraction of this thought, for it would cause us to fall back into a pseudo-rational Gnosticism; it would attribute to a holy God a calculating mind which would utterly appal him. We have no other position than at the foot of the cross. After we have been there we are given the answer of the wisdom of God, which incenses the advocates of optimistic theodicies or of tragic philosophies. God’s answer is evil turned back upon itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

This answer consoles us and summons us. It allows us to wait for the coming of the crucified conqueror. He will wipe away the tears from every face, soon“.

– Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (trans. David G. Preston; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 102–4, 128–33.

Picking up some Hauerwas for Lent

There’s one wee book of Hauerwas’ that I purchased during the past year and never got around to reading, namely Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Brazos Press, 2004). Lent seemed like the right time to dig in. So I found me a quiet moment tonight and read it. Here’s a few passages that I sat with for a while:

‘Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality’. (p. 26)

On Luke 23:43: ‘What does it mean to say these are criminals?’ (p. 38)

Citing Rowan Williams: ‘God is in the connections we cannot make’. (p. 39)

‘Our attempt to speak confidently of God in the face of modern skepticism, a skepticism we suspect also grips our lives as Christians, betrays a certainty inappropriate for a people who worship a crucified God’. (p. 40)

‘Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten’. (p. 44)

‘In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reasin than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly’. (p. 50)

‘Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been … The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation; instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis – complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love’. (pp. 62–3)

‘This is not a dumb show that some abstract idea of god appears to go through to demonstrate that he or she really has our best interest at heart. No, this is the Father’s deliberately giving his Christ over to a deadly destiny so that our destiny would not be determined by death’. (p. 63)

‘We try … to compliment God by saying that God is transcendent, but ironically our very notion of transcendence can make God a creature after our own hearts. Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make everything turn out all right for us, at least in the long run, is revealed by Jesus’s cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is … In truth we stand with Pilate. We do not want to give up our understanding of God. We do not want Jesus to be abandoned because we do not want to acknowledge that the one who abandons and is abandoned is God. We seek to “explain” these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening we find a God who refuses to save us by violence’. (pp. 64–5)

‘If God is not in Mary’s belly, we are not saved’. (p. 76)

‘”It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work. The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s on-going agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly lets compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”‘ (pp. 83–4)

‘We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has committed himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell – no abandonment by God – but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us’. (p. 97)

‘Christ had no Christ to imitate’. (p. 99)

Advent V: ‘He was born for the Cross’

Ralph Hotere, 'Towards Aramoana', 1982

‘That Cross was deep embedded in the very structure of Christ’s Person, because nowadays you cannot separate His Person from His vocation, from the work He came to do, and the words He came to speak. The Cross was not simply a fate awaiting Christ in the future; it pervaded subliminally His holy Person. He was born for the Cross. It was His genius, His destiny. It was quite inevitable that, in a world like this, One holy as Jesus was holy should come to the Cross. The parable was spoken by One in whom the Cross and all it stands for were latent in His idea of God; and it became patent, came to the surface, became actual, and practical, and powerful in the stress of man’s crisis and the fullness of God’s time. That is an important phrase. Christ Himself came in a fullness of time. The Cross which consummated and crowned Christ came in its fullness of time. The time was not full during Christ’s life for preaching an atonement that life could never make’. – P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 107–8.

Geoffrey Bingham: ‘O Cross of Christ, O place of bliss’


1. O Cross of Christ, O place of bliss,
Of man’s invective traitor’s kiss,
Of sin and shame, of wounds and fear,
O Cross of pain you call us near.
The world cannot escape Your Cross,
Its mind reject fore’er the loss,
The darkness of the limbo dread
From which You cried for us—the dead!

We cannot know the pain You bore,
Nor ever live the anguish sore
That tore that holy cry of shame
From hellish depths of dreadful pain.
In You the ancient evil met
The modern guilt, th’eternal debt,
The wrath of God, the curse of law,
The separation evermore.

2. The wounds that sin in us had wrought—
Unholy sickness that we caught
From evil’s madness, from the womb,
That led us to eternal doom—
These, these were there upon You laid,
You wounded were by wounds we made,
Our wounds were Yours upon the Tree,
That we into Your wounds may flee.

In You the sins of all the race
Distorted body, mind and face,
Until You seemed as man no more,
Destroyed—as Man—for evermore.
O Holy One, You suffered much
To free us from the doomful clutch
Of sin and Satan, wrath and law,
And liberate us evermore.

3. Sometimes when all the world’s asleep,
Sometimes when terror’s passions deep
Come stealing to us from their grave—
Those sins from which He came to save
Our race of doom and dreadful death—
We cry as though our latest breath
Had come at last, and we are lost,
Upon guilt’s storm forever tossed.

But grace comes throbbing through that night,
And sin’s forgiven, and holy light
Breaks to us from Your Cross and Tomb
As You come to our upper room.
O Christ now risen from the grave,
You gave Yourself ourselves to save,
And all the pains of memory
Are banished in that holy Tree.

4. The shame of guilt cannot return,
Nor fire of curse within us burn.
You sin and guilt and curse became
To save us from eternal shame.
Our spirits in Your Cross rejoice,
And with us all creation’s voice
Is lifted in the highest praise
For love and grace and all Your ways.

O Cross of Christ, O place of bliss,
Of man’s invective, traitor’s kiss,
Of sin and shame, of wounds and fear,
O Cross of pain and love so dear,
We praise our God for love that gave
As Son to die, as Son to save.
We lift our songs, our hearts adore
And worship You for evermore.

Geoffrey C. Bingham, 1994

Lent Reflection 5: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the three decisive hours

crucifixion-2‘”Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It was as if the cosmos sensed that something decisive was going on here, as if it were participating in the darkness invading the soul of Christ. For our part, we do not need to experience this darkening, for we are already estranged and dark enough. It would suffice if we held onto our faith in a world that has become dark all around us; it would be enough for us to be convinced that all inner light, all inner joy and security, all trust in life owes its existence to the darkness of Golgotha and never to forget to give God thanks for it’. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 85-6.

I have posted previously von Balthasar’s entire sermon – The Scapegoat and the Trinity – from which this portion is lifted.

Lent Reflection 3: Gerhard Forde on Jesus’ cry of desolation

emil-nolde-crucifixion-1912‘Most everyone – conservative, orthodox, or liberal – seems to have trouble thinking the cry [of desolation] could be real. It seems as though having dispatched him to a humiliating, cruel, and agonizing death, we are surprised and shocked that he should find it all that bad. We just can not give up on making him our religious hero, desperately seeking in him the last spark of divinity, the courage, the faith, that will somehow see him through and thus enable us to avoid facing the end. There must be some way for him to transcend the fate to which we have dispatched him. It is as though by crucifying him we had merely provided the occasion for him to exercise his divinity, or as though as his murderers we hope that our crime was all a bad dream. For if he goes into the blackness of death forsaken even by God, what chance do we have?

But that is, of course, precisely the point. We have no chance. He comes to die for us, to enter into the blackness, the nothingness of death alone. Thus he goes the road of being human to the end. But it is even more than that. He took our place. He took our nature, being born under the law. He was made a curse for us, and he followed the course to death on the cross. In the end he cries out in an agony that Mark concentrates into the totally human question, “Why?” And there is no answer. Beyond the “Why?” there is only God. We are, once again, simply brought up against God. God is done to us. The true human can only wait on God here. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The human Jesus brings us to that end. This is his self-emptying (kenosis). Not that he divests himself temporarily of some divine prerogatives, but that he pours himself out into that last desolate cry.

Only by so pouring himself out can he finally be for us. Were he to hold something back or somehow to be protected from the stark reality of the death, he would be our lawgiver but not our Savior. His dying words to us would be some sort of admonition to stop our perfidy, shape up, and perhaps take him down from the cross before it all goes too far. His dying would be perhaps just the supreme example of how to die, and so the most strenuous law of all. That, one might say, is the theological way of taking him down from the cross. Only by truly dying does he put an end to us as old beings so that we can be made new. Only so do we come up against the one who calls into being that which is from that which is not’. – Gerhard O. Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 112-3.

The way by which God brings about reconciliation

cross‘[W]hat Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the “going down into the pit” of the Old Testament, it became “being in paradise tomorrow”. Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order “to be with the Lord” (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God “made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God’s eyes” (2 Cor 5:21).

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the “wonderful exchange” between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his “enemies” (Rom 5:10).

Certainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly intelligible form of such a manifestation.

No, the “wonderful exchange” on the Cross is the way by which God brings about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented in the making of the new treaty of peace, the “new and eternal covenant”. He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ. When he “signs” this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.’ – Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (trans. Michael Waldstein; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 85-7.

The locus of holiness

‘For execution by crucifixion to become the criterion of holiness, and of God’s holiness at that, became the supreme scandal. It created havoc (and still does) with all other ideas of wisdom, power, salvation, God – and thereby of holiness. How could such havoc be overcome? It is easy enough to accept, in theory, the idea of God as the sole source and criterion of holiness; but it is anything but easy when such holiness is defined by the awful dereliction on Golgotha. Likewise, it has proved easy in retrospect to accept the idea of Jesus’ holiness; but, in the first instance, it was anything but easy when that holiness was measured by his execution as a traitor to Israel’. – Paul S. Minear, ‘The Holy and the Sacred’, Theology Today 47 (1990), 8.

That holiness might fill the whole of life

As one whose destiny was from eternity the cross, through his active conquest over every form of the demonic and its blasphemous evil – through healings, prayers, the casting out of demons – Jesus erased all that separated God and humanity from fullness of life together. All that he touched he healed – carrying the full load of human alienation and depravity, sickness and blasphemy, until it crushed him. He alone could carry such a load. And on the cross, the Triune God in Christ established not a new divine love for the world but a new relation or treatment with the world in which God’s holy love might take shape and bear witness to its source. God’s justifying activity, therefore, was not only done by holiness but for holiness, and for it alone. It was done that holiness might fill the whole of life on earth as it does in heaven.

Poison, snakes, tobacco smoke, bugs, garlic, and the cross

Roy Harrisville’s Fracture has been on my ‘things-to-read’ pile for over a year. Today, it made the big leap to my ‘currently reading’ pile, joining Donald Bloesch, Adolf Schlatter, Oliver Crisp, Thomas Langford and James Livingston. I don’t plan on writing a review of Harrisville’s study but I did want to share just one thought from it that’s stuck with me as I’ve been reading on:

‘There has always been impatience with the death of Jesus as basis for a hard-and-fast, enclosed theological system, to say nothing of concentration on his death as such. Few things irritated Goethe (1749-1832) more than poison, snakes, tobacco smoke, bugs, garlic, and the cross’.

– Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), x.

Where, Then, Is the Sting?

Oh death! Where is thy sting?
Dread venom of lowest hell,
Brewed in the bitterness of hatred,
Where is thy sting,
Distilled from violence of rebellion,
Compounded of saddest separation?
This is death’s sting, and yet
Where, oh where, death, is thy sting?

Where does the sting incise,
Where pour out its poison,
Ghastly, grisly, doom-dealing, deadly?
In it the shame and pain of
Fruitless remorse, dull anguish,
Dry tongue cleaving, tears destroyed
In lethal cynicism, passion against God,
Rustlings of memories bringing horror,
And the incoming, ravaging darkness-
This is death’s sting.
Yet where, oh death, is thy sting?

How then the irrevocable loss
Of the holy, heavenly being-
Man brilliantly lit by God,
Pulsing in glory? How, where, is this loss?
Down in the mocking strata of death,
The leering, gaping grin of the grave,
The stench of corruption, glory-failure
And no-being in God. This is the sting.
Yet, oh death, where, where is thy sting?

The sting is in him. Look up
(All ye that pass by). Look and see.
Do not let the divine drama pass over you,
Be over you, be gone. Look up!
There, writhing with the sting. Oh yes,
Human enough to suffer and divine
Enough to bear. Look up and see,
All ye who pass by. See where death’s sting
Was and is no more.

If a man stay and look, he will see.
If he pass by, then in a moment
He will pass by love, and will never see.
He will miss the miracle
Hid in the grim gallows. He will bypass
Love reaching out with cool arms
To embrace the sin-fevered.
He will pass by, not knowing
Where the sting has gone.

Where is death’s sting?
In him:
Annulled and made void: nothing.
Its poison absorbed, destroyed.
Death tried to conquer. This it could not.
This sting in man is death, fiery,
Anguish and flame of hell,
But in him-after the suffering-
Exploded myth of destruction.
In him the fire of death
Blazed to expending, and expended.
Then death, where is your sting?

Ask not, ‘Where is the deathly sting?’
For it is destroyed, absorbed into nothingness
By love’s holy power. Now
It is only life, life flowing,
Life in quality replete, surging up
Out of the empty tomb. Christ’s grave,
Empty through grace, is the wide room
Of man’s new spirit. Man is in life.
Man is enthroned in the heavens,
Having entered into his glory
Through man’s suffering. Man is high.
Gone then is death’s sting.
Void in the victory-the ancient
Annulled victory of the grave.
Oh, death, where is thy sting?

Geoffrey Bingham, 1991

‘The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History’: A Review

Holmes - Wondrous CrossStephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007). xii + 130 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227541 2. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

It seems that not too many theologians feel just as comfortable writing about Isaiah and Jonah as they do Anselm, Aquinas, Doctor Who, Kierkegaard, Coleridge and Matt Redman. But then Steve Holmes is a particularly gifted theologian.

Holmes’ latest book, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History, has one central thesis: that to speak about the cross – which we must – in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. Those already conversant with Colin Gunton’s brilliant The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition will already be acquainted with where Steve is coming from, and perhaps where he is going.

He begins by reminding us that ‘Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the Cross than to understand it’ (p. 1), before turning in Chapter Two to where ‘Christian theology, if it to be adequately Christian, must always begin and end: with the inspired Scriptures’ (p. 14). In just 14 pages, Holmes introduces his readers to the place and use of typology in biblical literature, and then surveys the key OT material, ‘pictures’ that inform our theology of atonement: principally sacrifice, but also justice, servanthood, wholeness, healing, and representation.

In Chapter Three, Holmes attends to the NT metaphors of atonement: namely sacrifice, victory, ransom, healing and salvation, reconciliation, revelation, new covenant, and justification. He reminds us afresh that ‘the best way to think about the cross is to use many, complementary, models or stories of salvation that hint at and point towards the indescribable truth at the heart of the matter. It seems clear that this is what the New Testament writers did’ (p. 41). Some readers may expect more from these two chapters, but I think given the nature of the book and its intended audience what Holmes gives us is adequate.

In the following two chapters – Four and Five – Holmes sketches the tradition. Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Luther, Calvin, Anabaptists and Anglicans, early Evangelicals, nineteenth-century liberals and twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologians, Aulén and liberation theology are all perused. Holmes argues – against Jeffery, Ovey and Sach in Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, who spill not a little ink trying to prove (force?) otherwise – that the claim that penal substitutionary atonement is found in the fathers is misplaced and that he can find only ‘one isolated passage in Gregory the Great, but nothing else’ (p. 57), the focus there being principally on ransom and sacrifice motifs. This is not a problem however for Holmes: ‘If we understand the various pictures of the atonement to be complementary and (only) partial attempts to grab hold of a bigger truth, as I am suggesting we do, then the history of the early and medieval church will not seem surprising to us’ (p. 58).

The first full account of the doctrine comes, Holmes suggests, with Calvin. Had he wanted to, Holmes could have elicited support here from some negative (and older) critiques of the doctrine from church historians who claim that there is a scarcity of the doctrine pre-Reformation. See, for example, Laurence William Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester/London: Manchester University Press/Longmans, Green & Co., 1920), 191, and James Franklin Bethune Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine to the Time of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co., 1933), 352. Whether or not Holmes is correct here (and I’m not suggesting that he isn’t) is of little significance for his argument however.

Summarising, Holmes writes:

‘Christian theologians and preachers have told many, many ‘stories of salvation’. They have drawn pictures of kings being ransomed and slaves being freed and the sick being healed and guilty prisoners being declared innocent, of human nature being transformed and evil powers being defeated and people being inspired to a new life. The stories have changed through time because culture has changed through time, and different stories communicate the unchanging reality of the gospel to different cultures. At the time of the Reformation, penal substitution became a common and successful way of talking about the cross. Despite some critics, this remained the case for several centuries. Over the past two hundred years, however, several significant criticisms have been raised. Any account of penal substitution today needs to answer three questions:

1. How are all the different ‘stories of salvation’ related?

2. How did penal substitution ever thrive as an idea in early modern culture (i.e. sixteenth to eighteenth centuries)?

3. What, if anything, has changed?’ (pp. 72-3)

With this these questions, the Lecturer in theology at the University of St Andrews turns in the remaining chapters to explore the ‘what do we do with all these different pictures and stories’? question. ‘How do we decide between them which is right and which is wrong? Indeed do we have to decide between them?’ (pp. 74-5). He proceeds to properly note that ‘every story of salvation works by picturing what Christ did on the cross in terms of one particular facet of human experience, whether it be religious (sacrifice), legal (penal), or whatever. If we want to say that one or another of these theories is just plain right, then we have to say that the atonement, what Christ did for us to save us, really is just one example of the some more general part of human life. There are lots of sacrifices in the world, and the death of Jesus is one more. Perhaps more powerful, more lasting, than any of the others, but still, just a sacrifice amongst sacrifices. Or Jesus is one amongst a number of inspiring moral examples that we may find. Again, perhaps the most inspiring, but still, an example of some more general aspect of human life’ (p. 77).

One of the commendable things about this book is Holmes’ concern that the church might be able to communicate the truth to which the doctrine of penal substitution is attempting to proffer to contemporary society: ‘We need stories of salvation that are no decomposed, but that make sense to our culture’ (p. 103). He has most to say about this in the final chapters and in the Appendix (wherein he responds specifically to the challenges of Green, Baker, Chalke and Mann’s theses), but one does not need to wait until the end of the book to get to the ‘practical bits’, for this Baptist pastor has his eye on the world from Page 1. An example:

‘Our account of the atonement must make some sort of sense in whatever modern culture we find ourselves in. The pictures we draw must use symbols and images that people will recognise; the stories we tell must make sense. For academic theologians this is not quite so important: they can study the culture of Anselm’s day, and so work out how his theory made sense. But for preachers and evangelists – and that means every Christian – it is vital. When announcing the saving death of Jesus to people in ringing tones from a pulpit, or explaining it in hesitant conversation over a coffee, we need to be able to tell stories of salvation that will communicate, that will connect with the people we are talking to.

This might seem a very tall order, but if we accept the need for – and legitimacy of – many metaphors, we do not need to find one theory, one picture, one story, that will meet all these conditions. Instead, we can tell many stories, which between them build up into a cohesive, coherent picture. Some of them will underplay, or miss completely, this or that aspect of the biblical witness; some will be easy to grasp in our culture, others difficult and will require additional explanation. But between them all, we will build up a composite picture of all that Jesus has done, a picture that will begin – but probably only begin – to be adequate to explain the wondrous cross.

The question, then, that I want to put with regard to penal substitution as a way of picturing the atonement is not: ‘Does it answer everything?’ but rather: ‘Does it illuminate some things?’ Does it help, alongside other stories, to build up a picture of the cross? Of course it has weaknesses – every metaphor does – but do its strengths counterbalance its weaknesses? Is there some aspect of the work of Jesus that, in our particular culture, it enables us to speak meaningfully of, some aspect that is missed by most or all of the other things we could say or stories we could tell?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then penal substitution may – and must – remain as one of our stories of salvation, balanced by others of course, but an important part nonetheless of our witness to the cross’ (pp. 85-6).

I confess that I am weary of the use (and overuse) of unqualified analogy or metaphor in any christological discussion because, as with the resurrection, we are dealing with something, or Someone, new – a reality which fundamentally challenges all we know, and think we know, about the whole order of the possible. This does not mean, however, that I think there is no place for metaphor. I concur with Gunton’s The Actuality of the Atonement that we must not only speak about the work of Christ but that to do so necessarily means harnessing a broad range of metaphors – both biblical and extra-biblical – with the conviction that no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning. Therefore, warfare, redemption, judicial and sacrificial dialects are all valid (most often, to be sure, at different times and in different places) – as are dialects of poetry and the social and hard sciences – with the conviction that although no one group of metaphors can exhaust the atonement’s meaning, it is through metaphor that the church has been able to say anything at all about the cross. We ought not be concerned that no one metaphor can translate the reality of the atonement. Christ did not die for a metaphor. Moreover, the dominance of any one metaphor risks distorting the reality which, like conversion itself, carries a totality in it, an eternal crisis, to which nothing in the world is comparable and all metaphor inadequate. To employ an analogy: to stress any metaphors of the atonement at the expense – or even worse, at the exclusion – of others is akin to silencing all the members of the orchestra except the clarinets. Now I’ve nothing against the clarinet (I play one) but it’s not what the score before the orchestra requires. And anyway, 90 minutes of clarinet with nothing else is not even what the clarinetists want.

Holmes recognises the tendency within some evangelical camps to privilege penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement over others; a move, he argues, which distorts the full word of the cross. Instead, he cogently outlines why preachers and theologians – that is, all of us – need all the stories if we are even to begin to understand the many truths of what God was doing in Christ crucified. Penal substitution is one of these stories. If this story has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past – and it has, pitting the Father against the Son, for example – then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the Scriptures and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

In the final chapter Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. On this latter, and rehearsing some things he has written about more fully elsewhere (see Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Can Punishment Bring Peace? Penal Substitution Revisited’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005): 104-123), Holmes writes:

‘Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ’ (p. 119).

In this short book, Dr Holmes doesn’t answer every question we might have about penal substitution though he does give us enough of an indication of where he might want to suggest the answer might lay. But I have said enough. So, why do I like this book? Here’s four reasons:

  1. I agree with the basic thesis;
  2. It models a good way of doing theology: start with exegesis of Scripture, and then work through the tradition with an eye on the church and the world;
  3. Because it’s easy to read;
  4. Because it’s the kind of book I can pass onto folk at church who are confused about what the bible (and the tradition) wants to say about the cross, and/or who are needing a guide through the current debates on penal substitution. [Unfortunately, not too many are prepared to read Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement]. As a pastor, I can place this book into people’s hands confident that their love for Christ and praise for his work on their behalf will be matured and deepened.

It is all too rare to find a book written with the educated lay reader in mind by one who so properly has both eyes on the biblical witness, is so consciously aware of the tradition of which the theme is a part, and who is informed by the pastoral and missional implications of the discussion, and who also seeks to say something constructive to those on both sides of a contemporary debate. Holmes’ book does all this admirably.

Advent Reflection 9: Going the Whole Way

The cross was the reflection (or say rather the historic pole) of an act within Godhead. The historic victory was the index and the correlate of a choice grid a conquest in Godhead itself. Nothing less will carry the fulness of faith, the swelling soul, and the Church’s organ voice of liturgy in every land and age. If our thought do not allow that belief we must reduce the pitch of faith to something plain, laic, and songless, and, in making it more homely, make it less holy, less absolute, less adoring. The adoration of Christ can only go with this view of Him in the long run. Nothing lower takes with due seriousness the superhuman value of the soul, the unearthliness of our salvation, and its last conquest of the whole world. It would reduce the unworldly value of the soul if it could be saved by anything less than a Christ before the worlds. It came upon me, as upon many at the first it must have mightily done, that His whole life was not simply occupied with a series of decisions crucial for our race, or filled with a great deed then first done; but that that life of His was itself the obverse of a heavenly eternal deed, and the result of a timeless decision before it here began. His emergence on earth was as it were the swelling in of heaven. His sacrifice began before He came into the world, and his cross was that of a lamb slain before the world’s foundation. There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all, His obedience, however impressive, does not take divine magnitude if it first rose upon earth, nor has it the due compelling power upon ours. His obedience as man was but the detail of the supreme obedience which made him man. His love transcends all human measure only if, out of love, he renounced the glory of heavenly being for all he here became. Only then could one grasp the full stay and comfort of words like these “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Unlike us, he chose the oblivion of birth and the humiliation of life. He consented not only to die but to be born. His life here, like His death which pointed it, was the result of his free will. It was all one death for him. It was all one obedience. And it was free. He was rich and for our sakes became poor. What he gave up was the fulness, power, and immunity of a heavenly life. He became “a man from heaven.”’ – Peter T. Forsyth, The Person & Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 270–2.

Advent Reflection 5: The Great Dividing Issue for the Soul

‘Questions about immanence may concern philosophers. And questions about miracles may agitate physicists. But the great dividing issue for the soul is neither the Bethlehem cradle nor the empty grave, nor the Bible, nor the social question. For the Church at least (however it be with individuals) it is the question of a redeeming atonement. It is here that the evangelical issue lies. It is here, and not upon the nativity, that we part company with the Unitarians. It is here that the unsure may test their crypto-unitarianism. I would unchurch none. I would but clear the issue for the honest conscience. It is this that determines whether a man is Unitarian or Evangelical, and it is this that should guide his conscience as to his ecclesiastical associations. Only if he hold that in the atoning cross of Christ the world was redeemed by holy God once for all, that there, and only there, sin was judged and broken, that there and only there the race was reconciled and has its access to the face and grace of God-only then has he the genius and the plerophory of the Gospel’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 73-4.