Sunday, 19 April 2009

On becoming 'theologians of the cross'

As some may have noticed, I’ve been away from the world of blogging and e-mail for a few days break (near the New Forest). I’m grateful to those who submitted comments about my post on Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and sorry some of them took so long to appear.

I also couldn’t help being struck by the fact that a post put together at the last minute attracted so much comment —indeed it has generated its own thread on the Fulcrum website! Typical when something which took ten minutes gets the attention, whilst other things that take hours sink without trace!

However, it does rather make the point I was basically arguing, that there is a real tension between ‘cross centred’ and ‘resurrection centred’ theologies. Of course, neither is an ‘either-or’ approach, despite the tendency to caricature. The question is one of balance, not of choosing alternatives, and even Giles Fraser’s approach has a place for both.

I do, nevertheless, hold that whichever provides the ‘centre of gravity’ will shape the rest of our theology, and that, furthermore, it is the cross which should rightly take that position. Martin Luther’s dictum, Crux sola est nostra theologia (“The cross alone is our theology”), is, I think, a true summary of the Christian faith.

One of the points I was arguing, therefore, in my four Good Friday meditations is that we cannot think of the cross solely in terms of its salvific effects. We may, for example, have a theology which entirely accepts penal substitutionary atonement (another bone of contention), and yet which is not a ‘theology of the cross’. Without wishing to start a whole new argument (or create a whole new set of enemies!), I think much Charismatic theology falls into this category. Indeed, one could argue that the letters to the Corinthians very much address this problem. Compare Paul’s understanding of Apostleship with the Corinthian understanding of the Way of Christ:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. (1 Cor 4:8-9)

Despite the denial of the resurrection by some in the Corinthian church, it is widely accepted by commentators that a major part of the Corinthian problem was an over-realized eschatology — thinking that the benefits of the world to come could all be experienced in the ‘here and now’. The present application of the cross for these Corinthians was therefore the experience of life rather than death, whereas for the Apostle it was life through death:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:8-12)

The evangelical (that is to say, gospel) way is therefore not to assert that ‘because Christ has died, we live’. That is at best a mistake and at worst triumphalism. Rather, we must realize that because Christ has died we must die daily, and through that daily experience of death will come life, for us, and for the world.

Now it seems to me that this Apostolic understanding (which stands in contrast with the Corinthian understanding despite their faith in Christ!) relies on the cross being the transformative feature of our theology. As I argued before, there is nothing revolutionary in the belief that God raises the dead, and thus I must disagree with Tom Wright’s analysis which sees the resurrection as the ‘world-view changing’ element of the gospel message.

The Apostle Paul was a believer in the resurrection before he was a believer in Jesus, and presented this belief as an example of Jewish orthodoxy. Again, we might look to the exchange between Jesus and Martha concerning Lazarus:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (Jn 11:23-24)

Of course there are issues here about bringing a future hope into the present in the person of Jesus. To repeat, this is not about choosing between cross and resurrection. But it is clear that Martha already believes (albeit without much present comfort) in the resurrection. The issue for her is that this Jesus is the one who embodies that hope. And of course that understanding will undergo further transformation through the crucifixion.

Indeed, as John presents it, the raising of Lazarus is a trigger for the death of Jesus — a death on which Caiaphas delivers the prophetic verdict, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50). Once again, therefore, it is the cross which is the focal, and transformative, element in the gospel.

Once again, though, I would emphasize the need to see that this transformation is not simply in us being saved, nor merely in knowing that we are saved. It is a transformation which comes from experiencing the cross — from being ‘theologians of the cross’ in Luther’s sense of “dying and being damned” and knowing God most intimately in this (the experience of what Luther called anfechtung).

And this, I venture to say, is so alien to most contemporary Christian theology that we all have something to learn.

John Richardson
19 April 2009

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1 comment:

  1. Of course the resurrection & cross hang together (as does the ascension, sending of the Spirit & Christ's heavenly reign). They have to happen in a sequence - obviously can't have a resurrection with out a death!

    But the resurrection (amoung other things) seems to show us things about the cross - it's effectiveness for e.g. Philippians 2:5-11 show Jesus' exaltation is a result of his humiliation. An application for us is to experiance resurrection, 1st we have to experiance the cross - counter more Triumphalist versions of Christianity.

    Also the balance of the gospels - more time is dwelt on predicting the cross and on the events leading up to and the crucifiction than anything else.

    So cross-centred may sound wrong because all should be held together, but the cross does hold it all together. It seems that there are plenty around who need 2 Tim 1:8 - not to ashamed of Christ's suffering, nor suffering for him. It's the way to resurrection & glory.

    Of course - with a diminished view of sin, we are going to overlook the need for the cross.

    Darren Moore