SPIRITUALITY: Gazing Into The Mystery Of Christ’s Saving Work by Gregory Collins

A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life

Gazing Into The Mystery Of Christ's Saving Work by Gregory Collins

From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries

Yet it is not to be understood
that the Father was ever angry toward him.
For how could he be angry toward his beloved Son,
“in whom he was well pleased”?
(John Calvin)

Christ brought the idea of God’s humility to its ultimate limit: God, entering into the world, casts off the image of his glory and puts on the image of his creation (see Philippians 2:6-8).  He subordinates himself to the laws of creaturely life.  He does not violate the world order.  Nor does he strike the world with lightning or deafen it with thunder, as pagans thought (recall the myth of Zeus and Semele).  He only burns like a meek light before the world, drawing to himself his sinful and weary creation, not punishing it but calling it to wisdom.  God loves his creation and is tormented for its sake, is tormented by its sin.  God extends his arms towards his creation, implores it, calls it, awaits his prodigal son.

Of course, the dogmatic idea is expressed imprecisely here.  But this is done intentionally, in order to represent experience in a rougher and therefore more clear-cut form. (Paul Florensky)

The mystery of the cross of Christ – but also knowledge of history and honest reflection on the human situation as it confronts us in the world at any time – sets before us a very bleak picture of reality, one so bleak that only God could save us.  Christ’s suffering does indeed declare God’s loving-kindness.  It is the manifestation of divine goodness and philanthropia, (“love for humanity”) revealing the Father to be a “human-loving God.” (Titus 3:4)

Yet we should not sentimentalize the mystery of Christ nor reduce it merely to the level of a lesson in human ethical re-education on God’s part.  The deepest solidarity demonstrated by the incarnate God was not just his compassionate identification with our weakness and suffering.  It was much more radical than that: it was identification with us in the alienated state into which sin and evil had plunged the human race.  In and through that identification Jesus Christ performed the greatest miracle and mystery of all time: no less than the taking away of the sins of the whole world, (John 1:29), and the reconciliation of humankind with its creator.  Paul’s words are very stark:

For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

At the heart of the mystery of Jesus is the story of a God who not only descended to be with us through the incarnation but who also voluntarily stepped into the objective space of estrangement we human beings had opened up between ourselves and God.  We have been speaking of various “disclosure-zones” in which God breaks through to us, but human beings had created a fundamental closure-zone by saying, “no,” to God.  Jesus stepped across the gaping chasm between the All-Holy Trinity and sinful humanity and in our self-created closure-zone disclosed the loving kindness of the Father for us. (Titus 2:11-14)  For the first and only time in history since the fall, a human being lived, who by his own free will existed in perfect harmony and obedience with the will of God.  He closed the gaping abyss opened by us in our desire to be as gods. (Genesis 3:5).

His obedience both judged and cancelled our disobedience, his humility conquered our overweening pride, his forgiveness replaced our stubborn refusal to forgive; and he did it all as the incarnate God, being at one and the same time both the perfect manifestation of the Trinity and the perfect representative of the human race – both united in one person.  But in discussing this mystery we should aim to avoid all rash speculation, observe reverent silence before his suffering and death and try to remain faithful to what has been revealed and its (total) recording in the scriptures.  The church here can show us the way, for throughout her long history, almost no final and binding dogmas have been issued about precisely how Christ redeemed us.

Two errors above all may mar the proclamation of the mystery of Christ’s redemptive sufferings.  The first is the idea that any form of punishment was deliberately inflicted on Jesus by the Father in the mystery of his suffering and death, so that his death somehow had the character of a penal substitution.  Some Christians (including at times some Roman Catholics) actually hold that Christ’s atonement, the reconciliation process brought about by God between himself and sinful human beings, consisted in an angry Father striking a Son who took a punishment which ought really to have fallen on us.  According to that view, all the retributive justice of God against the human race for breaking his law descended instead on the innocent head of Jesus who stepped into our place so that his condemnation might secure our acquittal.

Such a theological opinion is often mistakenly attributed to Saint Anselm, a 12th century Benedictine monk and Archbishop of Canterbury, but he was not really responsible for it – at least not in that form.  Living in the feudal system of medieval Europe, Anselm wanted to vindicate the goodness of God.  He insisted that God, being infinitely just, had established a moral universe but that mankind had offended his honor by rebelling against him in disobedience.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, atoned for our disobedience with his perfect obedience (which being that of a divine-human being had infinite value) and in that way restored the correct balance of the universe: but in Anselm’s understanding that did not entail Jesus appeasing an angry Father.  Rather both persons of the Trinity acted together in restoring cosmic justice.  In a medieval world often wracked by capricious injustice, Anselm emphasized divine fidelity to good order, an order God had himself established as a moral God.  The main point was to establish that, since God is good by nature, he is never simply capricious or arbitrary in his decisions.

To deny penal substitution is not to minimize the seriousness of sin but one must try to understand correctly what constitutes sin and what conditions it creates.  Some words on this subject by the theologian Paul S. Fiddes offer a helpful clarification.  After mentioning various modern theories which stress Christ’s solidarity with us as social beings, Fiddes speaks of the objective situation of estrangement and alienation sin has generated between us and God:

But with other theologians, we may go further to see the cross as the occasion for Jesus to endure the experience of estrangement from God as well.  By entering a situation where he dies as an outcast, under human judgment, Jesus is in a position to undergo a death of total estrangement from both human companionship and from God.  This makes it possible for Christ to endure the same penalty against sin that human beings experience, dying under the “no” that God speaks against a human life which is characterized by rebellion against the divine purpose.  Such a view does not envisage God as directly inflicting a penalty on Christ; rather Christ participates in the human situation of being under divine judgment, which might be called “exposure” to the divine “wrath” against sin, or the personal opposition of God to sin.

One arrives at the notion of Jesus as a victim of penal substitution by misinterpreting Biblical texts and plucking them out of context.  But above all one gets there by forgetting the fundamental context in which any theology of Christ’s redeeming work has to be located: the universal loving will of God expressly declared in the New Testament to save the whole human race by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinners.

The second erroneous idea that mars the proclamation of the good news is equally unacceptable.  It is that of limited atonement, in other words, that Jesus died to save only a chosen section of the human race and not all people everywhere.  It is therefore worth noting some places in the New Testament where the universal nature of God’s saving work – Christ having offered himself for all people – is clearly affirmed:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 5:6-8; 8:1-4)

Later New Testament writers (in two texts attributed to Paul) also clearly teach the doctrine of Christ’s redemptive death for all:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all – this was attested at the right time.  For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. (1 Timothy 2:1-6; Titus 2:11)

Finally there is a strong text in the First Letter of St. John:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:-2)

Only by ignoring or misinterpreting such texts could such an erroneous misunderstanding as that of limited atonement have arisen, for their meaning is plain.

In approaching the mystery of the redemption it is important to recognize that it can only be expounded in metaphors and images which set the mystery of Christ’s redeeming work before us for our contemplation.  But it is a serious error to privilege any particular metaphor or image over others, to project into them more than they actually say or to pluck them out of the greater context of the mystery of Christ as a whole, forcing them to act as systematic definitions rather than metaphors.  A definition aims to capture life and fix it in a formula.  A metaphor, like a symbol or a parable, opens out on to a reality to which it gives privileged access but which yet far transcends its limitations.

“Redemption” is a good example.  In human terms, that usually entails someone buying back something (or someone in the days of official slavery).  Yet when used of God it is erroneous to ask to whom God “pays” the ransom money.  It is a metaphor which works by analogy.  The part of the analogy that is similar to our experience is that of rescuing and restoring something or someone.  The part that is not relevant may be discarded.  Nothing better kills a metaphor, symbol, or parable than literalism.

In considering the issue of Christ’s redeeming death, two questions are often raised regarding the atonement: “Did Jesus have to die?” and “Was an angry God appeased by the death of his Son?”  The second question is usually part and parcel of the doctrine of penal substitution.  In answer to the first question it ought to be admitted that there was a chilling inevitably about the death of Jesus.  But that was not God’s doing, but ours.  Given who he was, what he said, and what he did, it was inevitable that Jesus would come into conflict with the religious and political establishment of his era – or any era.  Once he became a threat, as with most prophetic figures, there was only one way that they could deal with him.  His death had the kind of necessity that accompanies the final choice of a particular path of action.  Once you take the decision to follow a certain route and initiate a certain course of action, a certain end becomes inevitable.  You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs: you cannot pursue the course of action Jesus did without setting yourself up for suffering and death at the hands of threatened authorities, (John 11:45-53).  The violent deaths suffered by other prophetic figures throughout history are further illustrations of that inevitable law.

The second question is more complex and therefore calls for more careful consideration.  Calvin insisted that there is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament to suggest that the Father was ever angry with Jesus in any way, even if he did hold that God had punished him instead of us.  Yet it is a fact: there is talk in both Testaments of God’s righteous indignation and even at times of his burning anger, (Isaiah 9:13-21; 10:1-4).  Here again we need to respect one of the basic rules of all theological language: in every analogy we employ to speak about God – analogies which are always based on human experience – the difference is always infinitely greater than the similarity we posit.

In scripture, God’s “anger” is a metaphor and is a very different thing from ours, even if analogical points of contact can be established.  In our case anger is almost inevitably tied up with egoism and pride.  It often stems from an exaggerated sense of our own importance (which as psychologists remind us may actually betoken a deep sense of inferiority) and our having perceived that that has been somehow slighted; and it is usually laced with jealousy, hatred, and a host of other vices.  That is usually even more the case when it involves so-called righteous indignation, the worst examples of which are surely to be found in fanatical religious zeal.  Saint James warned against such anger, (James 1:19-20).  Early monastic writers such as Evagrius insisted that anger is one of the worst human passions inhibiting spiritual growth.  Zeal is frequently the other side of insecurity.

It is wholly other in the case of God’s “anger.”  When scripture speaks of his wrath it is a way of describing his absolute holiness which is love.  While the New Testament expressly declares that God is love, it speaks of divine anger in an impersonal way as “the wrath.”  Yet such anthropomorphic language can be a helpful corrective to a tendency to project too easily on to God our own sentimentalized notions of “love.”  As the cross reveals, divine love is anything but sentimental: it is God’s holy love.  Yet in responding to all the evil and injustice with which human beings have oppressed each other throughout history, God’s righteous holy love can only appear to us as wrath.

If we are tempted to drop completely the metaphor of “anger,” in relation to God, then we may need to ask ourselves if we are still speaking about the Lord who revealed himself to Israel as a personal God of righteousness with a special interest in the poor, the weak, and the oppressed – and of the Father of Jesus Christ in whose crucified light our human darkness stands ever more exposed and condemned for what it is.

When we survey history – peppered liberally with atrocity after atrocity – the burning of women as witches, the Armenian massacres, the shoveling of the ashes of the Jews out of gas ovens, the African slave trade, child abuse, drug pushing, domestic violence, human sex-trafficking, torture, the nightmare of Rwanda, and, most recently, the potential destruction of our very planet – it would be naïve to subscribe to facile myths of inevitable human progress.  We might even find ourselves ready to agree with Paul: “The human race has nothing to boast about to God!” (1 Corinthians 1:29). 

The 20th century, with its two world wars and extermination camps, ought to have put paid forever to the myth of inevitable human progress toward the good.  Having grown up in Belfast in the 1970s, with its institutional injustice, political duplicity, religious bigotry, racial hatred, sectarian and political murders, and the creeping brutality that accompanied it all, and without denying the human capacity for greatness, I, for one, have never been inclined to downplay the reality of evil.  Saints Paul and Augustine, along with Luther and Freud, were surely not so wide of the mark at times in diagnosing what afflicts our human nature.

But that is not to say that in the face of such negativity, God’s “anger” at our wickedness is simply like our own when we are faced with negative situations.  In every analogy the difference between God and us is always infinitely greater.  What we call the anger of God is the manifestation of love confronted by injustice.  It is God’s love, burning to eradicate wickedness so that human beings might really live and attain their happiness in union with him, and it is directed against evil as such – never against “evil people.”  All have been made in his Son’s image and likeness.

As scripture says, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, (Romans 3:23), so that all of us are at some time in our lives potentially (and unfortunately all too actually) capable of real evil.  Yet no matter how depraved people may become, they remain always images of Christ the true Image of God.  That image-quality may be soiled, tarnished, obscured, and disfigured, but is never wholly lost, never totally destroyed.

Here Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans often part company with many other Christians in asserting that no matter how far we fall we are incapable of entirely obliterating that quality of our being, for it is rooted in God.  His “anger” is how we, warped by our evil tendencies, force him to appear.  It is but the dark side of his eternal holiness, goodness, and love which always want the best for creatures no matter how flawed we are.  The more we commit sin the more we weave a web around ourselves, voluntarily blocking out his light.  That is why in the incarnation God punched a hole in our self-woven cocoon and thrust in a hand to drag us out: so that we could not go on pretending to ourselves – and in that way justifying our own ghastliness to ourselves and others – either that there is no God or that an angry God does not love us.

Some of the wisest words on this subject have come not from the pulpit or the university but from the silence, solitude, and contemplation of a woman’s monastic cell.  What was “shewn” to the gentle mystic Julian of Norwich may offer us the last word on this mystery.  There is ultimately no anger in God because the apparent dichotomy between his justice and his mercy pertains only to how we experience him through the filter of ourselves.  The mystery is precisely this: that in God all is one in love.  To be finally at one (“oned”) with him will be to share in that resolution:

For, this which was continually shown in all, was a high marvel to the soul which beheld with great diligence: that our Lord God, concerning himself, may not forgive, for he may not be wrathful – it were impossible.  For this was shown: that life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live; and therefore to the soul that by his special grace sees so much of the high, marvelous, goodness of God, and that we are endlessly oned to him in love, it is the most impossible that it may be that God should be wrathful, for wrath and friendship are two opposites; for he that destroys and dispels our wrath and make us meek and mild which is the contrary of wrath; for I saw very surely that where our Lord appears peace is taken and wrath has no place; for I saw no manner of wrath in God, neither for a short time nor for a long, for truly, as I see it, if God might be even a touch wrathful we should never have life nor place nor being.

The cross of the only begotten Son is God’s “disclosure-zone” in showing us how serious our situation is when such a drastic intervention in history was required: God’s becoming in his turn the victim of human injustice.  But in the forgiveness he expressed in dying and in the universal scope of his death, Jesus revealed the all-embracing nature of God’s love: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34).  Most noteworthy of all is the fact that after his resurrection, unlike other victorious conquering kings, he did not settle scores nor display any anger against his friends who had betrayed him.  On the contrary his recorded appearances are distinguished by their gentleness, (John 21), even if he still had to rebuke some of them for their unbelief, (Luke 24:25; 38).

Yet accepting that the death of Christ involved no penal substitution, there is still a genuine substitution to be proclaimed in the Christian gospel of redemption.  According to that gospel, the Holy Trinity is the reconciling subject who acted to bring about peace with human beings.  The human race, through no fault of God’s, had wandered far from him.  To accomplish reconciliation, God the Son, (John 1:10), the Word who is the perfect expression of the Father and the ground of creation through whom all things were made, (Colossians 1:15-16, Hebrews 1:1-4) voluntarily descended into the world, (John 3:31-34; 6:38), to bridge the gap between God’s holy being and that of a world not only fragile and limited but actively hostile to God, (Romans 5:10).

For that to happen – indeed the only way it could happen – God had to choose freely to limit himself, accommodating himself to human weakness, (Philippians 2:7-8), abandoning his power, if he were to draw near to us in our extremity, (Matthew 26:53-54).  In fact, it was not such an alien thing for God to do at all.  In willing the existence of the created world in the first place, the Absolute had voluntarily accepted some degree of self-limitation, otherwise nothing else could ever have come into being.  But there was no necessity in any of that, unless one wants to say that love itself imposes a kind of necessity.

The Son, therefore, having assumed the human condition through his kenotic self-emptying, consented in perfect solidarity with us to step into the place of estrangement we inhabit, (2 Corinthians 5:21).  That brought him finally to death through an unjust and particularly cruel form of execution.  Having abandoned himself completely, he experienced the ultimate abandonment in solidarity with rebellious humanity: the apparent disappearance of the Father from his life, before as the gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us he breathed his last, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).

Jesus the representative human being, the sinless one, became totally at one with lost humanity: he became one with our God-forsakenness.  Self-surrendered, he accomplished the salvation of the human race.  Like an enormous sponge he absorbed into his own person all the evil carried out by every human being since the world began until, utterly wrung out, he carried us in union with his own humanity into the furnace of love burning eternally in the heart of the Holy Trinity.

In his resurrection from the dead the Father and the Holy Spirit responded to him in redeeming love, (Acts 2:22-23).  Easter Sunday was his justification, the divine confirmation of his mission and ministry, (Romans 1:3-5).  They reached down and saved him, lifted him up and brought him back from death – and with him us as well, whom he contained within his own humanity, (Colossians 2:1).

Exalted and glorified in God’s presence, his crucified humanity was transformed by the light and fire of the Holy Spirit which he poured out on his disciples at Pentecost, (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:2-13).  He appointed them apostles and heralds, empowering them to proclaim to the world the good news that humankind has been definitely, objectively, and finally reconciled to God, (Galatians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 5:20).  The Holy Spirit in turn voluntarily descended – and descends – to extend the saving grace of Christ through the church’s preaching to the uttermost ends of the Earth.

At every point the initiative for reconciliation and atonement rested with God who stepped freely into the breach we had opened up between ourselves and him.  As Saint Paul wrote:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting human trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors of Christ since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

It was not God who needed to be reconciled to us, but we who had to be brought back to God; not God who had made himself an enemy to us but we who had made him an enemy.  God remains the same forever, a faithful God of love and mercy, but we are those who stray.  It was and always is all God’s work:

  • Who proves the Father’s love for us is that he sent his Son to die for us even while we were still his enemies, (Romans 5:6; John 3:16-17).
  • What proves that the Son loves us is that, through his voluntary death, the love with which the Father loved him from all eternity (the Holy Spirit) is now able to be in us as well, (John 17:26).
  • What proves that the Spirit loves us is that s/he comes to help us in our weakness, (Romans 8:26), interceding for us with the Father even when we do not know how to pray as we ought.

This is the mystery of redemption, the saving work of Christ: the Father’s loving gift of Christ, the Son’s gracious self-offering, and the communion of the Holy Spirit who is their mutual gift to us, (2 Corinthians 13:13).

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