Friday, 2 April 2010

Day 39 - The Meaning of the Cross

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you
by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world

The meaning of what exactly happened on the cross continues to be a mystery to me - how could the death of Christ redeem the world ?

Yes, I have been taught all the theories of the atonement and they are worth a consideration on Good Friday:

The ransom view, or the classical view of atonement, that originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin. Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that grace pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil's clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ's death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ's death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan's grip. "Redeeming" meaning, literally, "buying back," and the ransoming of war captives from slavery was a common practice in the era. The theory was also based in part on Mark 10:45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" The ransom theory was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history.

The satisfaction view of the atonement has been traditionally taught in Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed circles. Here the word "satisfaction" does not mean gratification as in common usage, but rather "to make restitution": mending what has been broken, paying back what was taken. It is thus connected with the legal concept of balancing out an injustice. Drawing primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury, the satisfaction theory teaches that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God's honour by his infinite merit. Anselm regarded his satisfaction view of the atonement as a distinct improvement over the older ransom theory, which he saw as inadequate and was a precursor to the refinements of Aquinas and Calvin which introduced the idea of punishment to meet the demands of divine justice.

Substitutionary atonement is the reconciliation of sinful humanity with God through the substitionary death of Jesus Christ and is the most widely held theory in the West. It holds that only human beings can rightfully repay the debt which was incurred through their willful disobedience to God. Since only God can make the infinite satisfaction necessary to repay it, therefore God sent the God-man, Jesus Christ, to satisfy both these conditions. This doctrine stresses the vicarious nature of the crucifixion as being "instead of us" and is expressed in Scripture verses such as "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness," 1 Peter 2:24 and "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." 1 Peter 3:18

Aquinas' major difference with Anselm was rather than seeing the debt as one of honour, he sees the debt as a moral injustice to be righted. Calvin shifted from Aquinas' idea that satisfaction was penance (which focused on satisfaction as a change in humanity), to the idea of satisfying God's wrath. This ideological shift places the focus on a change in God, who is propitiated through Christ's death. The Calvinist understanding of the atonement and satisfaction is penal substitution: Christ is a substitute taking our punishment and thus satisfying the demands of justice and appeasing God's wrath so that God can justly show grace.

Penal substitution argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins.

So, I try as I might to get my head around all of that! However am still not content - there are so many strands to the events of Good Friday - my head and my heart go in so many directions. And the problem with theory is that it can remain just that, a packaged response (accepted or rejected) to an event which has cosmic consequences.

It is the writings of Jurgen Moltmann, which speak most to me about today. His book The Crucified God is one of the best works of theology I have read to date, as he brings the theme of divine love into the doctrine of the atonement. He writes that the grief of the Father is just as important as the death of the Son. That both suffer. In the cross Father and Son are most deeply separated in forsakeness and at the same time are most inwardly one in their surrender. 'Is is the unconditioned and boundless love which proceeds from the grief of the Father and the dying of the Son and reaches forsaken men in order to create in them the possibility and the force of new life.'

Somehow that does something in my heart and Good Friday, if it is to mean anything has to connect with our hearts. The world may continue to pass by this Holy Week, but in churches throughout the world today, Christians will be once more be motivated to live lives of faith. My prayer is that other hearts will be touched too, for the first time, because what happened over two thousand years ago was not only for the world, but was personally out of love for you and me.

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 comment:

  1. With a brain that doesn't understand anything but the basics of our faith, all I think I know is that Jesus died so horribly because He wanted to make sure none of the rest of us had to suffer. That's real love, and something I can never repay well enough...I hav