A friend and I spent four Sundays in Lent talking about the cross and what it means with folks from our church. Our goal in the class was modest, to let people know that the church has never held to only one way of understanding the cross. In fact some scholars say that there are as many as ten theories of atonement. We wanted to explore some of the great variety of images and language the church has used over the centuries.
How we talk about the cross is influenced by our social and historical times. For example Anselm’s satisfaction theory comes out of the medieval view of the world. It talks about God and humans using the model of feudal lords and serfs. Since we don’t live in medieval Europe and use its concepts of honor and shame, Anselm’s theory may not be particularly helpful for some of us.
How we talk about the cross is also influenced by our personal histories. As someone not raised in the church, language about being washing in the blood of the lamb was not particularly helpful to me. It didn’t make the cross more understandable. In fact it had the opposite effect. But if that language and that image are helpful to you, by all means continue to keep that language. The idea is not to restrict but rather to expand our language our images and our understanding of the cross.
Each generation has the responsibility to think seriously and carefully about the cross. Each generation has to consider which images and ideas and metaphors are helpful in our time and which ones are not. Let me be clear, I am not saying that what Christ did on the cross changes. That does not change. I am saying the ways we speak of this event may change. All language, anything we say about God is insufficient. Anything we say about the cross is less than the reality of the cross. Our language falls short and so we must think and re think the language we use.
Here is what John Calvin wrote:
If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it by satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. (Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Gal 2:21 )
And from the PCUSA Confession of 1967:
God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the power of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.
As we ponder Jesus’ death on the cross this day consider the language and images we use, may they be cosmic and personal, spiritual and political, paradox and clarity. And may your Good Friday and Easter Sunday be full of mystery, gift and grace.