by Thomas Belt
Fr Aidan has been a friend and sparring partner for several years now, during which time Eclectic Orthodox (EO) has become one of the best theological blogs around, so it’s a special joy to be invited to contribute a post in celebration of EO’s sixth birthday – and such mature conversations for a six-year old!
I’m Evangelical, though perhaps barely so, and am thus the odd man out around Orthodox campfires, but I’m steadily learning to appreciate the warmth of the theological vision of the Fathers. Lord knows my Evangelical upbringing bequeathed me no real sense of transcendence. To make up for that loss I had to venture beyond the resources of my denominational identity and step into the deeper streams of tradition. If I were asked to name an issue upon which Orthodoxy has exercised a particular influence, no one here will be surprised to hear me say Christology. And even this can be unpacked into distinct concerns. What I’d like to do here is reflect upon two terms in which Christians contemplate the sufferings of Christ. Mind you, I was raised on a diet of penal substitution. Being holy and just, God’s wrath had to be poured out upon guilty sinners, but being loving and gracious, God also desired our reconciliation. How could God accomplish both my judgment and my reconciliation? Enter penal substitution: God suffered in our place (there’s the substitution) the punishment (there’s the penal dimension) we deserve, that punishment being sin’s wages (Rom 6.23), death and the godforsakenness of our fallen condition.
This is not a view I hold today, and part of my movement away from it was my growing appreciation for the unity, and thus the indivisibility, of the saving efficacy of Christ’s entire Incarnate journey – birth, death and resurrection. So let me say up front that though I’m focusing here on how it is, as Paul says, we are “reconciled by his death” (Rom 5.10), I recognize that we are nonetheless “saved by his life” as Paul says with the same breath. I hope to show that penal (but not only explicitly penal) understandings of the Cross are irreconcilable with that participatory mode of relation to Christ’s sufferings expressed clearly in the NT.
One term we use to reflect upon the Cross is the concept of substitution. Jesus dies “because” of our transgressions (Rom 4.25) and “for us” and “for our sins” (Rom 5.8; 1Cor 15.3; 2Cor 5.21; 1Pet 3.18). It’s argued that the notion of substitution derives from the use of relevant prepositions (anti, hyper, dia) variously rendered “for,” “because of,” “on behalf of,” “instead of” and “in the place of.” These prepositions may not get us a penal substitution, but some notion of substitution seems to be at work.
Another resource for substitutionary thinking is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy as thought to be interpreted by the author of Hebrews. Jesus bears our sin away, a sacrificial lamb, thus fulfilling that economy by being the penultimate instance of the kind of sacrifice upon which that system supervenes.
Consider then a second term in which the NT understands Christ’s sufferings, that of participation. St. Paul (Phil 3.8-11) desires to “participate in Christ’s sufferings,” so that he “becomes like [Christ] in his death,” thus “fill[ing] up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1.24). Paul also advances a participatory mode of relation to Christ’s sufferings and resurrection in Rom 6.3-5 where we are told that “all who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death” and that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Nor is such participation absent from Hebrews where we are urged (13.13) to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
The combination of substitution and participation seems self-contradictory, for on the surface of it they represent two contrary modes of relation. Substitution presumably excludes us from that fate which our substitute bears on our behalf, while participation involves us in sharing that suffering. It is unclear how one can participate in Christ’s sufferings if Christ suffers that from which we are freed. This is true especially if the Cross is where God suffers that particular godforsakenness (even “spiritual death” as Fleming Rutledge urges) which is the consequence of our sin. What is there to participate in?
A participable cross renders penal construals of Christ’s suffering untenable. What we require, then, is a notion of substitution (if that’s a fair word to continue using) that admits participation, a suffering on our behalf that is vicarious and effective by means of the mode of participation it offers. Every analogy fails, and maybe readers can improve upon mine, but Roger Bannister comes to mind. In 1954 Bannister became the first athlete to break the 4-minute mile, and once he accomplished it others quickly followed in his stead. What was thought impossible (breaking the 4-minute barrier) before Bannister subsequently became commonplace. The breaking forth of achievement after Bannister is no coincidence; his solitary representative act occasioned new possibilities for others.
Similarly, Christ can be said to take our shared humanity to the abyss of the Void and there face our finitude and mortality under the conditions of our own violence, not so that we need not face the Void and die there, but because we must, and so that we may do so without falling into despair and misrelation (Heb 2:14). He suffers not spiritual death – God forbid – but he abides confident of God’s love and obedient to it in those conditions which in us occasion despair and spiritual death, thereby creating a pathway for us to follow in his stead. In addition, Christ’s sufferings manifest humanity’s truest possibilities in a manner no other is able to achieve because of his unique innocence. Thus, the substitutionary role is real, for only so innocent and willing an assumption of our condition by Christ in our stead could expose and disarm the reigning sacrificial economy (Col 2.13-15) and in so doing invite us to follow in his stead. Substitution becomes participation.
Let us come round to Hebrews then, a letter commonly interpreted as championing a substitutionary view of Christ’s sufferings. I was taught that where the blood of animal sacrifice failed to atone, Christ’s blood succeeded because with Christ the sacrificial system finally landed upon just the right sacrifice. I want here to argue precisely the opposite – that in Christ this economy is finally shown to be an altogether failed and bankrupt mode of relation to God.
Hints of this appear in the OT, some of which the author of Hebrews relies on. Take the prophetic reminder (Hos 6.6) that “I [God] desire mercy not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings,” echoed in Ps 51.17 as well, “You do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” These inform the author’s critique of sacrifice. Heb 10.8 as well: “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ though they were offered in accordance with the law.” This closing line of commentary is telling, for it suggests that when the writer follows with “Here am I, I have come to do your will,” he cannot mean to extend that same economy with Christ, introducing a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary, we see rather the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to him. How can God get across to Israel how uninterested he is in blood sacrifice? How can this economy be shown to be bankrupt? To manifest this Christ submits himself to its sacrificial logic, lets it exhaust all its resources upon himself, and then manifests God’s contradicting verdict from beyond the grave. Thus Christ exposes the mythology upon which that entire economy of relation is predicated. Only resurrection from the execution prescribe by the law could reveal this.
However, it is not only explicitly penal understandings of Christ’s sufferings that are incompatible with a participable Cross. Even understandings of the Cross that disavow penal associations in favor of a loving identification with humanity’s fallen, godforsaken plight can manage to make the Cross non-participable. Jürgen Moltmann, for example, writes:
The abandonment on the cross which separates the Son from the Father is something which takes place within God himself; it is stasis within God – ‘God against God’ – particularly if we are to maintain that Jesus bore witness to and lived out the truth of God. We must not allow ourselves to overlook this ‘enmity’ between God and God by failing to take seriously either the rejection of Jesus by God, the gospel of God which he lived out, or his last cry to God upon the cross.
As a ‘blasphemer’, Jesus was rejected by the guardians of his people’s law. As a ‘rebel’ he was crucified by the Romans. But finally, and most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and his Father. In the theological context of his life this is the most important dimension. (Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 151f)
If we cannot condemn this, we owe Arius an apology. I grant the irony of an Evangelical saying such a thing, but I offer it nonetheless. Note that Moltmann is no fan of penal substitution. It is purely in terms of loving identification that he understands the Cross. But identification with what precisely? In Moltmann’s view, Christ identifies with the actual godforsakenness that is the consequence of our sin. But while no one doubts that Christ does identify with our natural human condition, we cannot construe that identification in non-participable terms.
Even Rutledge in her profound work on the Crucifixion commits this error. Not only must Jesus die as a consequence of our sin, which is hardly deniable. He must suffer the consequences of our sin. The Cry (Why?) demonstrates that Jesus “embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space.” Christ “is suffering the curse and the defilement that would have fallen upon them—that is, upon us.” Jesus was “utterly cut off from his powers, from his Father, from any hope of redemption or victory” and therefore “suffered what the book of Revelation calls the ‘second death’…as our substitute.” Jesus “exchanged God for Godlessness” and was made to be sin. “Does this mean that Jesus became his own Enemy?” she asks. “It would seem so.” There is nothing to participate in here. The Cross has become commiseration.
Recall Jesus’ instructions the night before he died. He knows he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even by his disciples. He does not believe, however, that his Father will leave him alone. Jn 16.31-33:
“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine)
Odd, don’t you think? Besides declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus states explicitly that he wants his disciples to understand from how he suffers how they shall possess his peace in their own upcoming afflictions. How the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is thus how God is with us in our suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness in terms Moltmann and Rutledge describe.
John 14.30-31 as well:
The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
Perhaps Jesus was mistaken. Perhaps he encounters on the Cross a horror he did not expect, namely, the realization that the Father had abandoned him, an abandonment which, Moltmann argues, is the only thing that can make Jesus’ sufferings unique and efficacious. But alas, such suffering is not participable, and such a view has also to assume Jesus is being described as having fundamentally misunderstood the very nature of his own passion.
Jesus makes a similarly curious statement v. 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
When is this true? Where is it true? How is it true? It’s true on the night of his betrayal, but will it be true for Jesus tomorrow as he hangs on the Cross? Here is an assurance Jesus leaves his disciples on the eve of his lynching which we fail to connect to the event of the Cross itself, or if we do make a connection it’s only to argue the Cross is the one place where these assurances fail to define for Jesus the truth of his experience. We think this because we believe their failing to be true for him is the cost he must endure so they can be true for us. But I submit to you the opposite, namely, that what Jesus promises on the eve of his crucifixion his Cross actually demonstrates, that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he actually possesses and embodies as he is is murdered, and that only if his own assurances are true for him then and there can they be true for us here and now. This is where and how the Cross becomes a participable reality whose participation is life-giving and transforming. In the words of Christ re-imagined:
You will leave me, but He won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
in the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone — surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
drank it down, all the pain,
from inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell
would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity could conceivability
conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.
In the Psalmist’s piercing Cry that Jesus utters on the Cross, God recreates humanity ex nihilo (as it were) – via Christ’s humanity (God’s own humanity), God takes creation to the very edge of that nothingness from which we are called into being, and there humanity finally relates to God truthfully and peacefully in the face of its finitude. Christ takes the essential question at the heart of the Cry (Ps 22) and submits himself to the Father as its answer for all of us. This is identification to be sure, but not with the godforsakenness of a broken and despairing mind. Rather, the Cry becomes a point of departure where we can locate ourselves within the event of the Cross and there participate in the unconditional acceptance of the Father in the truth of its freedom and independence from every created source.
Finitude must ask Why? Where is God in this? On Jesus’ lips it tells us that he is standing at the very place before the Void which marks the spot of humanity’s absolute dependence upon God over the abyss of its own nothingness, and that where we fall into misrelation and despair, Jesus surrenders himself peacefully and in loving trust to his Father. Jesus then does not die spiritually, suffering the second death, rather, he fully lives under the full weight of created finitude abandoned by its own and bereft of every creaturely support. He asks our question, and he asks it from the regions of suffering that only so innocent a victim can know, and the answer he gives is how and where he offers his sufferings to us for our participation and salvation.