Following on from the consideration of what Bonaventure and Scotus wrote on the subject of Salvation from Christ (Part1) I wish to add some further considerations of biblical texts and other approaches to the subject by Kalistos Ware, Paul Tillich, Jurgen Moltman and Karl Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Tom Wright.
Some biblical considerations
Jesus forgiveness of sinners
There are a number of occasions when Jesus seems to give a direct forgiveness of a persons’ sin prior to his own death (as in the case of the paralytic, the woman caught in adultery and the sinful women who comes and washes His feet). More-over Jesus exhorts his disciples to forgive sins or else they cannot be forgiven either. If the disciples are to forgive it is because God is ready to forgive and Jesus shows this in His own activities. This seems to contradict the view that the death of Christ was necessary for God to forgive the sins of the world. Rather Jesus, bearer of the Word, the presence of God Incarnate, contains in Himself the authority sent from the Father to forgive sins. In Him something new has already come that sets the old things aside. Even if once the Law required sacrifice Christ has the authority to set the past rituals and necessities of the Law and presents in its place a new and radical grace and forgiveness. God has set the old aside and established the new way.
Another important thing is that Jesus also teaches His disciples is to think of God as “father” (literally “abba”) a child’s name for God. It is already a radical image of loving intimacy and of tender care. A father who loves a child may discipline and child yet still love them. Here again the story of the “prodigal son” implies a message about a God who is looking out for the wayward offspring as he comes back over the horizon and then instigates a party to celebrate the return. As we suppose this father figure is to denote God and His love it is hardly the image of a God who needs appeasement or is so wrathful as to demand something other than simple repentance. This is not a God needing “satisfaction” for the son’s sins. Thus is a God ready to forgive and wanting to forgive with no hint of some-one needing to placate an offended and hurt Father.
In the same prayer that Jesus teaches the disciples to call God “Abba” (father) there is request that we be forgiven our “debts” (sometimes translated as trespasses or sins). Howard Yoder pointed out that the term debts should be the preferred translation because the socio-economic realities of the time made “debt” a meaningful metaphor. It was the theme taken up by Anselm and we may enquire what sort of debt. We can perhaps re-express it in terms of what we owe God and our neighbours when we do not practice love and do not follow the great commandments to love God above all else and love our neighbours as ourselves. We are intended to be beings in communion with God and our neighbours and family and surely every deviation from that love is a kind of debt of love that has failed to be paid. Our “trespasses” and our “sins” are debts we owe. Jesus never speaks of Himself as the One who will be debt payer. He does however show He is the one who remits and forgives and cancels the debt. It is not paid for it is simply cancelled in the same way we are also invited to cancel such debts when we are wronged.
Jesus is recorded as making a somewhat enigmatic statement that He would give up His life as a “ransom for many”. This saying remains an enigma. Jesus does not elaborate on its meaning. While it seems logically related to a price paid for our salvation the question historically asked “a price paid to whom?” This remains an interesting question but maybe a literal answer is not necessary and pressing Jesus’ imagery was not a good idea then or now.
As I wrote in Salvation Part 1, many of the church fathers preached the ransom was paid to the devil who held us in bondage of sin. This was the chief dispute that Anselm answered to when he claimed instead the “ransom” was paid to God as a Satisfaction of our debt of sin against God. It may be better to leave the enigma of Jesus words as they are. Certainly is may seem that Jesus death is a cost paid that is related to what He did in His obedient love and suffering vocation. The preservation of His words in the gospel underline that He knew He would be killed because of opposition against Him but that it was a price He would acceptably pay to bring His vocation and message to completion, and forward the work of God in the world.
A feature of the Johannine writings (gospel, letters and Revelation) is the depiction of Jesus as a lamb, more specifically “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (as announced by John the Baptist). Such an image relates of course to the Jewish cultural practice of lambs of sacrifice. In Hebrew and Jewish traditions lambs were sacrificed for two main reasons. The first was related to the Passover, the remembrance of the saving act of God in exodus, when the blood of lambs marked out the houses of the children of Israel to defend them from the avenging angel of death. In this instance it was related therefore to the covenant relationship with God and indeed God’s own creation of a people as His own, living in His presence in union with Him. There were other sacrificial moments in the Israel’s history also related to the acceptance of the Law (the laws of Moses) as being part of that defining relationship. Jesus at the last supper speaks of His death as being for a new covenant relationship. Thus in this way the Lamb of God image of sacrifice is about covenant and belonging and a new way of belonging to God. Jesus is gathering a new community of belonging that replaces that which has gone before.
The second type of sacrifice of the lamb was however related to Atonement, the restoring of relationships damaged by sin and wrong doing. Many cultures have had sacrificial rites for restoring relationships and in this sense Israel and the Jews were no different. It is however a matter of dispute as to what that atonement actually meant, as expressed by two different words “expiation” and “propitiation” (the latter meaning something like appeasing). Expiation may simply be a covering over or wiping away and hence such atonement is a sign of forgiveness as the sin is covered or wiped away. The second term however is something like an appeasement to turn aside God’s wrath. Clearly expiation appears to be a term more related to God’s love and will to wipe away the offense, propitiation seems to be much more pagan as if God must be appeased. It would therefore seem to me that an Expiation sacrifice is much more sympathetic with the revelation of God as Trinity and loving union It is also the more fitting with Jesus own teaching and declaration of forgiveness.
Made a curse for us
St Paul writes of Jesus that He was made a “curse” for us. The actual facts of Jesus death were that he was put on trial for blasphemy and found guilty. In that respect at least He was considered by the religious authorities and “sinner” and some-one who was against God and His people. Furthermore the manner of death by crucifixion, nailed to wood, in effect nailed to a “tree” was also a symbol of curse and being alienated from God. Both these mean that the actually innocent Jesus became some –one considered cursed by God and at enmity with God. This fact of history could be seen by Paul as being related to Jesus undergoing this curse actually for us, to be later vindicated by God in the resurrection. We may also consider here early Christian tradition began to link the death of Jesus to the enigmatic “suffering servant” of Isaiah 52, where the servant is considered cursed by God but actually was bearing the sins of others. Historically this was originally in the context of the suffering community in exile who may have been seen as bearing the sins and faults of others that led to their captivity. The innocent bearing and suffering for the sins of others. Again in neither case can I see such texts as supporting anything related to a satisfaction of God’s wrath or punitive punishment of Jesus by God for the sake of others.
Kalistos Ware – The rich and wide scope of Salvation
The western Latin Church and later Reformed traditions focused strongly on the “satisfaction” and later “penal” aspects of the sacrifice of Christ, but this is much narrower than the Eastern traditions written about in the church Fathers in the first few centuries and during the formation of the creeds. So we may wish to look at this much wider perspective and for this I turn to some notes from a lecture my Metropolitan Bishop Kallistos Ware.
He says that no one image or explanation should be adopted for the meaning of the death of Christ and there are various facets of His death that should be seen as one whole. They are like different choices on a menu and none should be seen as more ultimate or better than the others. There is one fundamental truth but expressed in various ways, that God has done something in Christ for us that we could not do to save ourselves from our wayward existence and failures to be the people God wanted us to be. God comes to us because we cannot cross the abys of sin we have created.
Some theories or images of the cross suggest a divine anger and that something is needed to change God’s mind towards us. Ware says this is not so, God comes to change our minds about Him. Again certain images of salvation seem to make a separation between the Father and the Son, a kind of punishment of the Son for our misdeeds. But we cannot separate the Father and the Son in this way. God was in Christ reconciling us. Furthermore some models of salvation seem to isolate the Cross of Christ from the Incarnation, but no there is a unity, the death of Jesus on the cross is part of a greater and wider scheme.
There are five “models” of salvation and what the death of Jesus means but none are elusive explanations. .
- Christ is teacher and life giver.
- The idea that a ransom price must be paid for our release from our wayward nature. We are to find a new liberty in Christ. While some have asked “to whom was the ransom price paid?” it is probably the wrong type of question to ask.
- The sacrificial lamb. Here again with come to deep waters with imagery belonging to the ancient world. It may be related to the Exodus or Atonement symbols and “blood” of cleansing. Again images that should not be pressed too far. We must see in Jesus a voluntary offering of Himself so that we may have something of His divine life in us. It is Love that leads Him to this offering..
- Victory over evil. This is a crowning completion of God’s love in confrontation with all that is evil. It is the answer to the misery of existence and death. It is suffering love and not force that overcomes the evil. It is victory of love over hatred and disorder.
- Christ the Example. Love came to us inviting love in return.
We need today as in the past to see all the varied and wider dimensions of the Truine love that would rescue us from our sin and associated guilt and separation from God, neighbour and the world.
Tillich – Acceptance and New Being
In Volume 2 of his Systematic Theology Paul Tillich discusses the theme of the death of Jesus in his overall theme of Jesus being the Bearer of New Being that we need to have, and something that fits very well into my thesis of our incomplete humanity in need of change. The doctrine of Atonement is about the divine act in making it possible for us to find God and have new relationships and then our reaction to what God has done that enables that relationship. There is a need of divine action so that guilt and estrangement is removed but this involves our acceptance of it as part of it.
As with Kalistos Ware, Tillich writes that the church has never had only one way to talk of this saving event and has always had several ways of trying to define this with strengths and weaknesses in each image of what it means. There is first the image of a “victory” over the power of evil and a payment made. This must be seen as conquest of things that make for estrangement, a conquest of all that holds us in some sort of bondage (and things related to our being incomplete and different to our intended being).
Abelard (and others) expressed a subjective side to Atonement, seeing in Christ His Love for us that should awaken in us devotion and answering love that has the power to overcome estrangement. Yet people may also want and need an assurance of something more objectively done to remove our guilt. The knowledge of something objectively done (as in Anselm “satisfaction”) makes such an account effective in a psychological way. The symbol of the infinite worth of Christ gives a satisfaction in place of our failures. What is important here is that the divine presence has done something for us and Atonement is from the divine side action. It is that God makes it happen for us (God in Christ “reconciling the world to Himself”) to remove the stain of sin and guilt. Christ as bearer of the New Being mediates this change in our status.
There can however be no conflict between God’s love and God’s justice. Divine justice is part of the divine love and is against what is not love. Estrangement and their effects that cannot just be ignored. Atonement is related to God’s own participation in our estrangement in order to rescue us from it. God in Christ takes it upon Himself and is part of God’s own reaction to our situation. God experiences our worst to release us from it. From this we gain acceptance and participation in what God does and leading on towards sanctification and change of our nature as persons.
Jurgen Moltman – God on the cross as victim
There is in Moltman’s interpretation of the death of Christ the strong emphasis on the actual sharing of the divine nature in the death of Jesus. It is not simply Jesus the man who suffers the terrible and unjust torturous death, the very being of the Word in Him is there too. It is the Crucifixion of the Word, the Crucified God and this has many implications to a theology of the cross and it meaning for our salvation. This has links with parts of the church father’s teachings as part of their ransom. explanation. The events of the cross are more than just things related to Satisfaction or Christ in our place it is the very being of God who suffers for and with those who are the victims of injustice. It is God with the victims, who became victim.
The Cross is a scandal that reveals God in godlessness. God is revealed in the opposite of goodness, in sin and abandonment. The cross, as an instrument of torture and capital punishment was an embarrassment to both Jews and pagans alike, it was for the death of slaves and rebels, an offense against good manners and hence would seem an inappropriate way for God and His Messiah to be revealed. The festival of Good Friday may have its deepest significance for those who are abandoned and suffering, suffering injustice. In this Jesus is not just a fellow sufferer but God has entered the condition of abandonment and injustice. It is full of political and social relevance. It is not just an event of the past. God dies with the godless to bring them into fellowship.
The death of Christ is the presence of God in the divine union and hence it can be seen as something related to a suffering of God. We may wonder how the Infinite Being of God can experience suffering and death yet affirm that in some way it is experienced and known in the Being of God, a new a direct knowledge of suffering and death within His own creation and a participant. Thus in Jesus the very essence of the divine Word Incarnate is involved in the suffering of Jesus and it is literally God on the Cross, God the Eternal Son who bears the burden of salvation and reconciliation for us. Indeed it is not just that Jesus dies for our sin, He dies in solidarity with all suffering and the suffering of Jesus is also the suffering of God with and in His own creation, not simply for human sin but a co-suffering with all suffering life in existence and with all life that has ever existed in the course of evolution.
Jesus death is all at once the death of:
The Israel’s Messiah
Jesus the Jew, the persecuted by the nations
The slave of the empire and of all empires, the forgotten and victimised
The death of any being that must suffer death because of its finite existence, sharing the suffering and death of all life in incomplete creation.
Although there is with Moltman aspects of “Penal substitution” theory there is also this social theology and one that embraces all the social rottenness of society and the very closeness and involvement of God in the mess of human failure, with a love that comes to resolve it and give us back our true humanity and dignity. It the closeness of God to all suffering in creation and all the social rottenness and victims of others injustice, cruelty and brokenness. This is truly a case of “God with us” in the most radial sharing of the divine life with all of life. it is also in very Franciscan in the emphasis of social solidarity with victims of evils of the world.
Karl Rahner – Salvation and God’s Self -Revelation
In Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith the Incarnation and the event of the cross are seen together in that broader context of the history of revelation of the divine nature and purpose for all of earth history. It is connected to the potential transcendence of humanity beyond what have been and are, individually and in societies. In the past the revelation of God took place in relation to rituals developed in society, including (and not exclusively) in the life of the Hebrews. It is seen in the covenant with the people and in the life and actions and responses of those people to what they had received. This revelation comes to a greater focus in the special presence of God in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and is greater than all previous revelation. Something irrevocable and irreversible has come in Christ, decisive but as yet incomplete.
Rahner writes that it is open to debate how exactly Jesus saw His death as “saving” action, but in no sense did He Himself seem to convey it would change God’s relationship to people and hence in this view was not a satisfaction of wrath or doing anything to change God’s relationship to humanity. Rahner acknowledges that part of the redemptive role of Christ is expressed in the bible as “propitiation”. The idea of propitiation was a common idea related to ancient sacrifices but is less helpful today, it may not be tenable in respect of God with a transcendent mind that can be changed. We must instead see that all initiative for salvation and forgiveness must come from God as a starting point, with the original intention of saving love.
It is God’s love for the sinner that is the cause of salvation, not wanting appeasement for injury of sin. . It is God that wills and brings forth a man who represents His finality for us and who overcomes the forces against Him and involves our response of accepting the offer of salvation that comes from the divine initiative present in Jesus. (Very much it seems to me in accord with Duns Scotus). There is in theministry of Jesus the tragic rejection of Himself despite His real obedience to God, His surrender and then the vindication of Him in the resurrection. This opens up a much wider variety of explanations of His death and the reasons for it that God beyond the restricted western church tradition of Jesus death as a Satisfaction of God.
Wolfhart Pannenburg – Reconciliation
In his Systematic Theology Vol 2 Pannenberg takes a wide-ranging view of biblical texts and mainly Lutheran theology in respect of meanings given to the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Son is “sent” to the world in the incarnation that includes the human distinctiveness of Jesus. He has made place for divine lordship and also the renewal of society. The coming of Jesus, sent from God, is first foremost an extension of the Messianic hope of Israel now opened to all humanity.
As with Rahner, Pannenberg writes that in His coming, we cannot separate Jesus from His mission as Saviour. He bears a hope for the future and brings renewal of fellowship with God. This new fellowship is central to salvation (as I would put it restoring us to our Intended Being). Jesus is the basis of a new participation in fellowship with God. The death of Jesus was a consequence of His message and His obedience (in the face of opposition). His ministry and message was related to the Love of God and showing it (in contrast to the legalism and sacrificial necessities). There is in Christ already a possibility of union with Him that is part of the future deliverance and future with God. The future life of all believers is already anticipated in Jesus life.
This salvation includes a mediating role for Jesus as part of it. It is from the God who has provided such a hope and means of fellowship that brings that future to the individual (and I would add, to society). Those who cling only to the world loose out. Salvation brought by Jesus includes a future judgement but also a present belief and faith assures that the judgement will be positive.
There has been an “Expiation of sin” tradition in the church but the idea of vicarious punishment has often been challenged and it is argued that God does not need to be reconciled to humanity, it is the other way round. Rather reconciliation is the outworking of the divine love in the face of human rejection and evil. Schleirmacher wrote that Christ came to communicate God consciousness and conferring forgiveness freely, that in some ways is closer to Paul that God does the reconciling from divine love. In this Schleirmacher is close to Abelard (and parts of Bonaventure) that God draws us into the divine love to change us. There have been others, like Ritschel, who also emphasised the subjective side of the death of Jesus related to His obedience and the opposition that He faced.
Citing Kahler, the historical fact of Jesus’s death is an action on God’s part. The doers of sin are released from the terrible consequences of what they do. We see in Christ God’s gracious sparing of the offender and accepting the self-offering of Jesus. Our human sins are transferred to Christ in order to have them wiped away. (See again Scotus, Christ’s merits transferred to us). In Christ God replaces the former ritual of atonement with Himself, hence something better than the former ritual has come. It is often the case that the expiation with respect to Christ has been seen as something done by Jesus as an act of appeasement of divine wrath. We should instead see it as an act of God and see it in a new way. It is God opening up the way of reconciliation by divine action.
Considering the Last Supper Jesus seems to link His own death with a new Covenant rather than expiation. It may be more about a favour given through Him. We cannot assume the preserved Eucharistic words of Jesus intended to mean anything related to expiation, rather that He was bringing something new that replaced what had gone before under the law and sacrificial system.
Pannenberg asks if we want to maintain the element of Jesus death “for us” do we need to see it in different terms for today, away from images of expiation and punishment? It would seem we still do need to make use of traditional elements even as we look for new models that supplement tradition and we may not be able to desert the traditional elements. What we may need is simply fresh expressions of old truth.
Tom Wright- Correcting views about Penal Substitution
I came across an online lecture by Anglican New Testament scholar Tom Wright and also his book “The Day the Revolution began”. In both he criticises how ideas of Penal Substitution have been read into Biblical texts without consideration of the larger themes of God’s covenant with Israel, or even Jesus own words and actions in the gospels.
What we see in the gospel of John and the other gospels are re-working of the ancient stories to create a new one. All the ancient images find their real counterpart in Christ. Jesus with signs starting at the Cana wedding are part of the showing of the returning divine glory. Then we have the request of the Greeks to see Jesus that is met with a strange response. Their very request is sign of new things coming to pass when Jesus will be glorified in His death. In what is to happen all the Jewish and Gentile corruption of the world will be judged by His death and ruling powers of darkness overthrown. Such an approach to the gospels stories is a kind of Christ the Victor theme. It also about the building of a new tabernacle of heaven with earth is being built.
The western church has tried taking specific texts to build a whole theology of atonement (plus some cultural ideas of their own). Texts have been distorted and played to idea of debts and law courts. If we start with these we distort the theology. The very idea of Atonement is not precise and we cannot limit it to the cross. We have to include the Ascension and the idea in Hebrews that Christ eternally offers His once and for all sacrifice to the Father.
Part of the problem is that also we may misread the entire sacrificial system of Israel. Animal blood was used to cleanse the sanctuary to maintain the heaven and earth contact. They were not about a vicarious penalty. The only animal specifically related to sin was the scapegoat that was set free into the wilderness to carry the sin away. God provides the means of removing sin by sending it away, not killing the animal in place of the person. The Reformers as much as the Catholics used these inherited ideas although they tried to get back to the bible. We have to get inside the bible and its world views and what it may have meant for the Messiah to die.
Another part of the problem has been a platonization of eschatology. Heaven and earth souls rather than renewed heaven and earth. What we say about our future (which is also God’s future) also links with what we think of the cross and resurrection. If we think simply of morality and fitness for heaven, we lose our understanding as image bearers and our role in creation. It becomes self-centered about our individual sins. It looks like we make the sole focus of the cross about morality. In doing so we actually make it pagan, about an angry God (or master or ruler) who must be appeased for our mistakes. Of course preachers may protest they are always speaking about the divine love in rescuing us. Yet what we have heard by this means of interpretation is about the angry God, with a redemptive violence against Jesus the victim. It looks like God hated the world so He made justice give up His life. The idea of a penal substitute is thus distorted. This distortion arises about Penal Substitution if we say God punished Jesus. The Roman text says God condemned and punished sin in the representative flesh of Jesus as Messiah, not saying God punished Jesus.
The western church, first with Anselm and then with the Reformers has often focused on the death of Jesus as in some way an appeasement of God and satisfaction of God’s honour or justice or wrath. As I wrote in “Christ and Salvation Part 1” even in discussion of Satisfaction there have been different ways of viewing this, with Scotus being most radical in his view of divine acceptance of the death of Jesus to cover our sin. But the focus on cross as an act of Satisfaction is still too narrow and not a complete biblical set of explanations for why the death of Jesus has so much significance for our future life as human beings intended for glory in the divine fellowship and the remaking of creation.
The other contributions here show other ways in which the death of Jesus has a significance for human salvation and indeed going beyond Human needs. We should see the cross as part of a whole history of divine relationship and not as some deity that needs appeasing. If there is price to be paid it is by God’s own initiative that it is paid because of love that wishes to overcome sin and moral and spiritual failure. God takes the initiative by the Word incarnate doing all that is necessary to complete the original and destined plan of eternal fellowship. It is also related to the whole way in which God first is revealed to the Hebrews in His covenant and all that happens in Jesus is the continued faithfulness to that covenant for the good of all the world. In an evolutionary context it is growing from where we have been, that we are and what we can become as God intends us to be.