I’ve finished my first two systematics papers for my Christology and Soteriology class. It’s probably not advisable for me to reproduce them here in their entirety (don’t want to tempt any present or future classmates). But I really want to share with you what I’ve learned from writing them, because I’m really starting to get some kind of handle on what I believe about this stuff. And that’s exciting, because these were the questions I entered seminary with most urgently. Now I’m almost done – I mean, like 4 weeks from being done! – and I’m finally finally getting some answers. It’s supercool.
I guess I’m more excited about the atonement one than about the other (which is an essay on why we should/should not pray to Jesus). So I’ll list out some of the main things I gleaned from the former. If you're curious about the latter, leave me a comment or email me and I'll send you my paper (if enough people are interested I'll just post the main ideas). Anyway here's where I'm coming down on the cross/atonement (at this time in my life, anyway!):
First: Jesus died willingly on the cross. I know that this may seem obvious. But for a while there I was in the “cosmic mistake” camp that says it was just a tragedy caused entirely by humans or by sin. In fact, I don’t think it was. I think it was actually planned by God. Not the cross part necessarily (my prof had a funny illustration that Jesus could have been stoned and it would have served the same purpose, and we’d all wear little rocks instead of crosses as jewelry), but definitely the dying part.
Second: Jesus was God dying on the cross. Jesus’ divine nature didn’t fly away that day, even when he said God had forsaken him, and certainly not because God is somehow too pure to be mucked up in sin (despite what Habakkuk 1:13, which I’m presently translating for my other class, says). Mostly I believe this because I don’t think Jesus could have split his natures like that. It’s not like a personality that can split. It’s who he is – human and divine, at once. If one is missing, then it’s not really Jesus anymore. He wasn’t a human possessed by a divine spirit (Apollinaris), nor was he a divinity who just seemed to be human (docetism), nor was he a human who was elevated to the level of God’s son based on his exemplary life (adoptionism). He was just God and Man. Deus Homo. I can’t explain that part. It’s just a faith thing. But I know that it only works if he’s both at all times, including on the cross.
Third: Which means, God was on the cross, and God died. That part really makes my head spin. I go in circles trying to figure out how God could experience death – if death is separation from God, does that mean that God separated internally? But that seems impossible, so did he not really die? No, he died…maybe he died without the separation happening? This part I have not figured out. I tried to just avoid it in my paper. I can’t wrap my mind around God dying. But the implications of it are amazing.
Fourth: I do feel like I have a handle on Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He was quoting the first line of Psalm 22, which would have brought to mind the entire psalm for the Jewish observers of the crucifixion and those hearing or reading the story later on (similarly, if I were to say “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” your mind would probably complete the sentence: “that saved a wretch like me”). If we go to Psalm 22 and read the full text to which Jesus was referring, we see that it is a prayer made in a desperate time that is ultimately very certain of the faithfulness of God. The psalm has lines of despair, begging for God’s help, but at the same time affirms an unshakeable faith that help will come: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (v. 24). By quoting this psalm, Jesus isn’t saying that God has left him, but in fact is saying God is right there with him, suffering selflessly for the love of humanity. It is a cry of pain – a cry in solidarity with our pain – but at the same time it is a cry of faith and of absolute confidence in God’s presence.
Fifth: The way I think of the cross now is in terms of relational anguish between the closest possible persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – who are all still divine and still in relationship throughout the crucifixion. The cross is a crisis within the life of God, not something God watched from afar. (yes, I’m on the Moltmann train) Now only God the Son was actually on the cross, but it was experienced by all the persons of the Godhead. Moltmann says, “The Father lets his son sacrifice himself through the Spirit”. That kind of sums it up. Everybody suffered that day. And everybody did it willingly, and for the same purpose: to defeat death so that humans didn’t need to be separated from God any more ever again.
Sixth: The Son did not die to satisfy the wrath of the Father or of God (Jesus’ will was the same as his Father’s. Jesus didn’t will salvation and the Father judgment. Their wills were the same: that none should be lost – John 3:16-17, 1 Tim 2:3-4, 2 Pet 3:9). The cross is not a judicial arrangement taking place outside the sphere of human affairs. Because Jesus is totally human, it is intimately involved in human affairs. On the cross, God is completely identifying with humanity, and in our most vulnerable place: our pain. Our distance from God. God takes on the worst of what it means to be human because that’s who God is. That’s how God gets close to us. In our pain, our suffering. God’s love is in self-emptying and suffering (John 3:16, Rom. 8:32, Gal. 2:20); when we are called to imitate Christ, our paradigm is his kenosis (Phil. 2:5-8). “The cross was a window into the very heart of God, for in and behind the cross, it was God the Father himself who paid the cost of our salvation. And so through the shedding of the blood of Christ in atoning sacrifice for our sin the innermost nature of God the Father as holy compassionate love has been revealed to us.” (Thomas Torrance) “The theology of surrender is misunderstood and perverted into its very opposite unless it is grasped as being the theology of the pain of God, which means the divine co-suffering or compassion.” (Moltmann)
If we don’t accept that God himself/herself suffered on the cross with us, then we are stuck in the mindset that God does not truly understand and identify with our suffering. This will cause us to be mired in guilt and shame as we cower before a God too holy to be in the presence of sin. In fact, if Jesus was God on the cross, where he was “made to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) and “a curse” (Gal. 3:13), then God has fully identified with sinful humanity and we need not be afraid to approach the throne. See Rom. 3:23-4, 1 Cor. 6:11, Titus 3:4-7, Heb. 4:16. (look at me, finally using prooftexts! What fun!)
It is integral to our salvation that God suffers with us and is with us in our distress and pain. God exhibited this throughout history by identifying with his people Israel. The good news for humanity is that God is not far away from us in transcendent immutability, but rather actively engaged in our lives and invested in our relationship with him. If we do not believe this, we should not even bother to pray! But we do believe that when Jesus is called “Emmanuel” it really means that in him, God is with us. God so strongly identified with us that he became human and took on the sentence of death that being human entails. And when it came time for that sentence to be carried out, he remained with us in the experience of death. This is the good news of the cross: that in the darkest hour, the hour of “god-forsakenness,” God was right there. God was on the cross.
Seventh: The salvation of humans was set in motion at the incarnation, not at the crucifixion, and it was finalized at the resurrection. When God came as a human being, God took on the sentence of death (not sin, but death). The moment that happened, at Jesus’ first breath, death was doomed. For death would not be able to hold him, and when Jesus was resurrected, death was defeated not only for him but for everyone. God was fully aware of the consequences of his incarnation and willingly emptied himself for the sake of humanity.
There is also something interesting that my prof keeps talking about involving the fact that by becoming human, God healed humanity. It's not just that Jesus was a model for how to live life, but he actually opened the way for all of us to live like he did - maybe even, potentially, sinlessly? Or at least, live in the kingdom - see that it is here now and live accordingly. Something about God taking on human flesh and ridding it of guilt and sin can transfer to the rest of us, but I don't quite get that yet. What I do think I'm starting to believe is that this "already but not yet" stuff isn't quite right. I really think that, especially if you read just the gospels and maybe the Johannine literature, you can make a case that the kingdom is already here. Well it doesn't seem like it, you say. There is war and mourning and pain still. Well maybe the kingdom doesn't look like we think it does - maybe the perfection we all expect at the end of it all isn't the way it goes. If you think about it, the original creation, if you subscribe to evolutionary theory, was full of pain from the start - there was always death and things killing each other and stuff. But it was in a process of getting better. That's why humans were told to subdue the earth - because the earth wasn't finished - even in the garden of Eden, the idyllic paradise (mythical or not), humans were told to subdue. So there were still things needing finishing. And they were told to multiply - so the society wasn't complete yet. I mean, there are little glimpses that the world was always meant to be a co-project between God and people, and that it will just continue progressing towards completion...maybe forever? I don't know. Maybe a few millenia from now we'll have lions and lambs domesticated and living together. Maybe we'll get to a place where through diplomacy, war is no more. I like to think that we're partnering with God in all this and we're not just waiting for Jesus to come again and clean up our mess. And I also like to think that when Jesus preached that the kingdom was "at hand" he meant it. It really came along with him. Maybe even the stuff in Revelation about the new city coming down was accomplished at the resurrection - or the new city, the new Jerusalem, is the church. There are a lot of ways to think about this. And even if it's wrong, I like the way that it would make me live my life - it would give me more of a purpose, more work to do, instead of simply trying to convince people they should do something to get into heaven. I like thinking that I have meaningful work now and not just for the afterlife.
Wow, that was a tangent. Sorry. Back to Christology. We're to the eighth (day) now - completeness!
Eighth: Without the resurrection, the cross means nothing. This isn’t me, I’m quoting Paul. The party is on Easter. The pain is on Good Friday (since Christ entered our pain, it’s only fair that we enter his too). The focus on the cross is misplaced. The cross is important, but it’s not the whole story by any stretch. It’s only significant in light of the birth (incarnation), life (teachings), and resurrection (triumph) of Christ. Without the other pieces, it means nothing. The only way it can be central is if you believe that it was demanded by a God who had to have death to stop being mad at humans. I never believed that. Now I have good reasons why. The cross was the moment of God’s closest solidarity with us (and the strongest alignment between Father and Son, too), it was the inevitable result of God’s incarnation, it was the fulfillment of everything Jesus taught (love your enemies! Turn the other cheek!), and it was the prelude to the triumph of God’s life in Christ at the resurrection.
By raising the God-man Jesus, not only did God defeat death once for all, but he provided the promise of our resurrection – the first-fruits of the new creation that we enter by our baptism (1 Cor. 15). As Jesus was “Emmanuel” in death, so he will be “Emmanuel” in our resurrection and eternal life. I understand this to be the good news of salvation, based upon the divine being incarnating, living among us, dying, and rising again, so that we could follow in his steps (2 Cor. 5:17-21).
So that’s basically what I’ve been learning. I don’t know if it comes across as a tight theology, but it’s made me feel a lot more coherent. And it’s done wonders for my faith. All this stuff comes rushing into my head every week as we behold the Lamb during Eucharist. It’s just tremendous. Whoever knew systematics could do this? I sure didn’t. But I’m grateful.
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I am grateful for this post. I've been thinking a lot about the Atonement, lately and I've been having trouble. I especially like your "death was doomed" comment regarding Jesus' birth. And I love your notion of the Kingdom involving our partnership with God and not just a waiting game. I feel your theology is a beautiful balance between holding on to traditional views while remaining open. Your take on the cross, being God's closest place to us, really helps me. Thank you! This makes me want to go to Fuller more. Hmmm...
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