It is Expedient that One Man Die for the People

“Jesus, a victim of a conspiracy among threatened Jewish leaders, died on a Roman cross.  Babel put Jesus to death: City and tower, Jew and Gentile, Shem and Japheth, the whole oikoumene, joined forces to kill the true Emperor.  To the Jewish temple elites, Jesus threatened the delicate balance with Rome.  As He gained a following, it became more and more likely that the Roamns would come to take away ‘our place and our nation’ (John 11:48).  It was expedient that one man die for the people.  Jesus threatened resistant Jews because he favored Judea’s untouchables and flouted the rules of purity.  His movement was a contagion that could infect all of Judaism and prevent Yahweh’s advent to redeem Israel.  He had to be expelled.  It was expedient that one man die for the people.  For the Roman procurator, Jesus was another Jewish nuisance, innocent perhaps but not worth protecting at the cost of a riot.  It was defensible to execute Him, since He called Himself a king, talked about an empire other than Rome, set Himself as rival to Caesar.  It was expedient that one man die for the people. . . . or, it was convenient to offer a scapegoat to protect one man’s dead-end post in the fetid backwaters of the empire.  Pilate’s utilitarian calculus unmasked the brutality just underneath the shiny surface of Roman justice.  Roman iustitia cracked forever at the cross of Jesus.  And Jesus’ unmasking of Roman power advanced a crucial step in the resurrection, the Father’s own verdict regarding Jesus, His ‘justification’ or ‘vindication.’  The resurrection made public what was hidden in the cross, that Jesus is the Righteous One.  If that is true, then the alliance of Jews and Romans to execute Jesus was unjust.  Before the cross, Jew and Gentile, partners in building Babel, stand exposed.” —Between Babel and Beast, 35-36.


Nothing But the Cross

After a two-year sabbatical to share two other wonderful homilies (here and here), I return to my tradition of re-posting Peter Leithart’s 2006 Good Friday Homily:


Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus and the cross. Was that enough? To answer that question, we need to answer another: What is the cross? The cross is the work of the Father, who gave His Son in love for the world; the cross is the work of the Son, who did not cling to equality with God but gave Himself to shameful death; the cross is the work of the Spirit, through whom the Son offers Himself to the Father and who is poured out by the glorified Son. The cross displays the height and the depth and the breadth of eternal Triune love.

The cross is the light of the world; on the cross Jesus is the firmament, mediating between heaven and earth; the cross is the first of the fruit-bearing trees, and on the cross Jesus shines as the bright morning star; on the cross Jesus is sweet incense arising to heaven, and He dies on the cross as True Man to bring the Sabbath rest of God.

Adam fell at a tree, and by a tree he was saved. At a tree Eve was seduced, and through a tree the bride was restored to her husband. At a tree, Satan defeated Adam; on a tree Jesus destroyed the works of the devil. At a tree man died, but by Jesus’ death we live. At a tree God cursed, and through a tree that curse gave way to blessing. God exiled Adam from the tree of life; on a tree the Last Adam endured exile so that we might inherit the earth.

The cross is the tree of knowledge, the tree of judgment, the site of the judgment of this world. The cross is the tree of life, whose cuttings planted along the river of the new Jerusalem produce monthly fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.

The cross is the tree in the middle of history. It reverses what occurred in the beginning at the tree of Eden, and because of the cross, we are confident the tree of life will flourish through unending ages after the end of the age.

The cross is the wooden ark of Noah, the refuge for all the creatures of the earth, the guarantee of a new covenant of peace and the restoration of Adam. The cross is the ark that carries Jesus, the greater Noah, with all His house, through the deluge and baptism of death to the safety of a new creation.

The cross is the olive tree of Israel on which the true Israel died for the sake of Israel. For generations, Israel worshiped idols under every green tree. Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into an idol to worship. Now in the last days, idolatrous Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into a cross. The cross is the climax of the history of Israel, as the leaders of Israel gather to jeer, as their fathers had done, at their long-suffering King.

The cross is the imperial tree, where Jesus is executed as a rebel against empire. It is the tree of Babylon and of Rome and of all principalities and powers that will have no king but Caesar. It is the tree of power that has spawned countless crosses for executing innumerable martyrs. But the cross is also the imperial tree of the Fifth Monarchy, the kingdom of God, which grows to become the chief of all the trees of the forest, a haven for birds of the air and beasts of the field.

The cross is the staff of Moses, which divides the sea and leads Israel dry through it. The cross is the wood thrown into the waters of Marah to turn the bitter waters sweet. The cross is the pole on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, as Jesus is lifted up to draw all men to Himself.

The cross is the tree of cursing, for cursed is every man who hangs on a tree. On the tree of cursing hung the chief baker of Egypt; but now bread of life. On the tree of cursing hung the king of Ai and the five kings of the South; but now the king of glory, David’s greater Son. On the tree of cursing hung Haman the enemy who sought to destroy Israel; but now the savior of Israel, One greater than Mordecai. Jesus bears the curse and burden of the covenant to bear the curse away.

The cross is the wooden ark of the new covenant, the throne of the exalted savior, the sealed treasure chest now opened wide to display the gifts of God – Jesus the manna from heaven, Jesus the Eternal Word, Jesus the budding staff. The cross is the ark in exile among Philistines, riding in triumph even in the land of enemies.

Jesus had spoken against the temple, with its panels and pillars made from cedars of Lebanon. He predicted the temple would be chopped and burned, until there was not one stone left on another. The Jews had made the temple into another wood-and-stone idol, and Israel must have her temple, even at the cost of destroying the Lord of the temple. Yet, the cross becomes the new temple, and at Calvary the temple is destroyed to be rebuilt in three days. The cross is the temple of the prophet Ezekiel, from which living water flows out to renew the wilderness and to turn the salt sea fresh.

The cross is the wood on the altar of the world on which is laid the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. The cross is the wood on which Jesus burns in His love for His Father and for His people, the fuel of His ascent in smoke as a sweet-smelling savor. The cross is the wood on the back of Isaac, climbing Moriah with his father Abraham, who believes that the Lord will provide. The cross is the cedar wood burned with scarlet string and hyssop for the water of purification that cleanses from the defilement of death.

The cross is planted on a mountain, and Golgotha is the new Eden, the new Ararat, the new Moriah; it is greater than Sinai, where Yahweh displays His glory and speaks His final word, a better word than the word of Moses; it is greater than Zion, the mountain of the Great King; it is the climactic mount of transfiguration where the Father glorifies His Son. Calvary is the new Carmel, where the fire of God falls from heaven to consume a living twelve-stone altar to deliver twelve tribes, and turn them into living stones. Planted at the top of the world, the cross is a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.

The cross tears Jesus and the veil so that through His separation He might break down the dividing wall that separated Yahweh from his people and Jew from Gentile. The cross stretches embrace the world, reaching to the four corners, the four winds of heaven, the points of the compass, from the sea to the River and from Hamath to the brook of Egypt. It is the cross of reality, the symbol of man, stretching out, as man does, between heaven and earth, distended between past and future, between inside and outside.

The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to which all previous history led and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform – the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The Descent to the Dead

“The central meaning of the descent to the dead is that Christ’s identification with mankind in death is at the same time a proclamation of God’s favour, to those who are already dead, and also to those who have still to die.  The link between the cross and the resurrection is explicit.  Already the conquest of death is preached.  By making himself one with us in the darkness of God’s wrath, Jesus brings us out from darkness into the light of God’s favour.  And in particular he brings those long dead: the place of St. Peter speaks of the generation who died in the primaeval flood, because they, alone among all generations, had no symbolic prefiguring of the Paschal Mystery to instruct them.  They stand appropriately for all who have died without hearing the message of hope.  To all who have lived and died in every age the one perfect work of identification and vindication extends its summons to rise from the grave and be alive for evermore.”

–Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty-Nine Articles


The Cry of Dereliction (McCormack Croall Lecture #5)

Perhaps wanting to circle the wagons after his unquestionably daring theological moves in the last lecture, McCormack began Lecture 5 by trying to emphasize the non-novelty of what he was doing.  There was a time 25 years ago, he said, when talk of the “suffering of God” and the “death of God” had achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy in dogmatics.  Process theologians, open theists, Barthians, Moltmannians–they all had their different reasons for making these moves.  But the conclusions were similar: God suffers not as a mere matter of love and empathy, but as one who takes the suffering of world into his own being.  

Returning to some of the rhetoric of his first lecture, McCormack darkly intimated that the causes of the shift back to the doctrines of divine simplicity and divine impassibility had little to do with theology.  The churches of Protestantism are in decline, he lamented, and its theologians are no longer faithful to Protestant theological distinctives–most now seem intent on trying to synthesize Anabaptist ethical impulses, Reformed theology, and High Church liturgical impulses (which, to be frank, sounds like a jolly good idea to me).  Catholic theologians no longer need to take Protestants as seriously as they once did; the traditionalists are now back in the ascendancy in the Catholic Church, and are trying to roll back some of the gains of Second Vatican.  All this, he suggests, has led to a rejection of the more radical, to his mind more Protestant, accounts of the atonement, and a retrenchment within older metaphysical categories–a trajectory that has not left New Testament exegetes unaffected.

Now, just as a brief side-note, all this is a bit amusing for a sheltered evangelical like myself to hear.  Evangelicals tend to lag a few decades behind the rest of the theological world, and so it is that we are just now encountering these radical Barthian ideas, and just now coming to grips with the fact that the Second Vatican Council happened–for us, a brave new world is opening before us, while for McCormack, that world is slipping away and he is desperate to stop the door from shutting on it entirely.  

McCormack prefaced his exegetical lecture with some words about method.  A Protestant dogmatics must be rigorously grounded in Scripture.  And while, to be sure, a dogmatics must read broadly and synthetically across Scripture, instead of singling out a particular text, this should not be the starting point.  Dogmatics must give due attention to the historical and literary features of individual texts.  In this case, that means that dogmatics may use historical reasons for privileging the Marcan and Matthaean accounts, and must take these narratives with utmost seriousness on their own terms, before attempting to make sense of the other narratives.  The lecture was to be organized in four major sections–first, an initial look at the crucifixion narratives in Mark and Matthew; then, attention to the Gethsemane narratives (again, primarily in Mark and Matthew); then, the Gehenna texts of the New Testament; finally, a return to the crucifixion narratives for reconsideration in light of all this.

 

1. The death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a first look

Mark and Matthew each only have one spoken word from the cross, followed by an inarticulate sound as Christ expires.  The one word is the cry of dereliction–there is nothing present to qualify this darkness, to add a tone of victory.  From the beginning, McCormack said, Christians have been concerned about the apologetic difficulties of this cry–how could a victorious God-man expire this way?  If it is the case, as McCormack thinks, that Luke deliberated substituted “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” then it seems that the apologetic modification began quite early.  Throughout church history, theologians were to continue to express discomfort with the cry of dereliction for various reasons.  

The cry has thus come to be considered something of a scandal, to be minimized rather than maximized.  McCormack wants to completely reverse that trajectory.  Two key questions have been raised about the cry: 1) did Jesus really feel himself to be abandoned?  2) was this feeling well-grounded?  Consensus of theological opinion has generally solidified around a “Yes” to the first question, and McCormack wants to take us further, to a “Yes” to the second question.  

The texts before us are Mark 15:33-34 and Matthew 27:45-46.  

The darkness that comes over the whole land is often recognized as an allusion to Amos 8:9, where this is described as an effect of the eschatological judgment of God.  The other obvious allusion is of course to Psalm 22, from which the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me are taken.”  McCormack criticized the tendency of many exegetes to bring some light into the darkness of this scene by drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22, which ends in praise amid the congregation at God’s deliverance.  But this misses the point of our narratives here–God does not intervene, Jesus does not live to praise God amid the congregation, the latter part of Psalm 22 is omitted for a reason.  But, like Psalm 22, this is a prayer, but a prayer that is no longer from a standpoint of intimacy with the Father, as the earlier prayers in Gethsemane were–God is distant.  This is not a prayer for deliverance; that prayer had already been made and refused in the garden; this is an expression of despair at the absence of God.  

McCormack also notes that some exegetes have connected the “loud cry” that Jesus utters at his expiration with the cries of the demon-possessed throughout these Gospels, the only other places this phrase is used. Could this make the cry of dereliction the equivalent of the demons’ “What have we to do with you?”  Not quite, says McCormack, nonetheless, the demonic idea points in the right direction–to the objective, not merely subjective, experience of God-abandonment.

The point of the exegesis McCormack wants to offer is this–in the Matthaean and Marcan accounts, Christ does not die in victorious union with his Father, but under the Father’s eschatological wrath.  These overtones are reinforced by the apocalyptic imagery that follows Christ’s death–the rending of the temple veil, the earthquake, etc.  Jesus thus dies forsaken by God and he remains so until his resurrection.

 

2. The Prayer of Jesus and Arrest at Gethsemane

The presence of apocalyptic imagery requires that attention be given to the background of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in the Second Temple period, the study of which has become something of a growth industry.  There are two main patterns of such apocalyptic: cosmic and judicial.  In both, there are two ages of the world, and the move into the new age of glory is inaugurated by the “day of the Lord,” the day of divine judgment.  The first pattern understands the world to have fallen under the dominion of evil powers, and holds that God will invade the world and defeat these powers in a cosmic war.  In the second pattern, the demonic element is marginalized or absent; God’s judgment rests on the evil that human beings do.  God’s remedy in this understanding, the day of the Lord, is a courtroom in which all humanity appears before the judge, and God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  

Both patterns are taken up in the New Testament and reinterpreted in light of the Christ-event.  So which one is dominant in these Passion narratives?  McCormack will argue that it is the latter–the judicial notion is most prominent.  He unpacks this by attention to the Gethsemane narrative, which comprehends two main events–the prayer of Jesus and his arrest.  The impassioned prayer of Jesus for deliverance was, like the cry of dereliction, an embarrassment to the early Church.  How could Christ have such terror at the prospect of suffering and death when many martyrs faced such torments more bravely?  Hence, we find a softening in the Lucan account and even more in the Johannine.  Modern interpreters, however, have liked to emphasize the humanness expressed in this fear in the face of death.  But both is mistaken.

What Jesus fears is not death as such, but the eschatological tribulation that will accompany it.  The cup is a common Biblical image of the eschatological wrath of God that will be poured out.  The cup that Jesus drinks is the eschatological wrath of God to be poured out on the nations at the end of history.   Joel Marcus tries to read the cosmic dimension into this account by calling attention to Jesus’s warning to the disciples not to fall into “temptation” or “testing”–a word that alludes back to the Lord’s Prayer and has demonic overtones.  But this demonic threat is to the disciples, not to Jesus.  When Jesus is handed over to the authorities in his arrest, the following narrative makes many allusions to Isaiah 53, which employs judicial, not cosmic categories.  Jesus is handed over to bear the eschatological wrath of God against sinful mankind; he is not handed over to demonic powers that they might be destroyed in their attempt to destroy him.

 

3. Gehenna texts

At this point, you like me, may be wondering just where McCormack is going with all of this.  And why does he bring in the notion of gehenna (“hell”) here?  Well, part of what McCormack seems to be up to is, following from the hints laid down by Barth and von Balthasar in the previous lecture (that the doctrine of hell was a result of the atonement), to subordinate the doctrine of hell to a judicial understanding of the atonement, and liberate it from dependence on a realistic account of the cosmic demonic powers.  One can see how such moves would be very desirable for a theologian speaking to the modern world, for whom both hell and demons have quite lost their appeal.  (Not that McCormack was denying altogether that there was a cosmic, demonic dimension to the world; he may want to deny that, but if so, he certainly didn’t go explicitly in that direction in these lectures.) 

McCormack thus spent a bit of time surveying the various passages in the New Testament that speak of gehenna or of a similar fiery judgment.  He took particular note, as Protestants generally do not, of hints that all who die, believer and unbeliever, will pass through some kind of fire–Jesus’s saying that “all shall be salted with fire” and Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 3.

The various descriptions of hell, he concluded, cannot be readily reconciled into one realistic picture; what does emerge clearly from them is the description of a condition of separation from God and from the righteous, a judicial picture of sentencing to experience the eternal wrath of God.  So it is that we can find a point of connection with the cry of dereliction.

 

4. The Death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a second look

The death of Jesus, we have seen, is the event in which the eschatological wrath of God against sinners is poured out.  Can we say any more than this?  Yes.

If the mission of Jesus was inaugurated by the Spirit being poured out on him, and the Father is mediated to him by the Spirit, then it makes sense to say that it is the withdrawal of the Spirit from Jesus in his passion that causes him to feel abandonment by his Father.  In the moment of death, the Spirit is withdrawn altogether.  Jesus is still the son of the Father, but the abandoned son of the Father.  It is thus in death that Jesus drinks to the dregs the experience of God-abandonment that is the sentence against the sinner.  Jesus experiences hell in our place on the cross.  

 

Conclusion

In concluding, McCormack turned to give brief attention to the Lucan and Johannine accounts: In Luke, we have “into thy hands I commit my spirit” and “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise”; in John, we have “Woman here is your Son”, “I am thirsty,” “It is finished.”  From John it’s clear how we can come to Tertullian’s conclusion that Jesus remains in complete control of his death.  

While the emotions which give rise to these disparate sayings may be compatible, McCormack considered it quite improbable that Jesus could have actually said all these things.  He thus wants to suggest that Mark and Matthew ought to enjoy a certain priority, on the basis of the sound principle that passages that cause serious difficulties for Christians are unlikely to have been interpolated later.  The words of Luke and John must of course be taken into account in a constructive dogmatic proposal, but cannot be taken with the same seriousness as the Marcan and Matthaean. 

 

Q&A

In the Q&A, unsurprisingly, most questioners zeroed in on what McCormack had said about Hell.  The upshot of his answers was to say that he believed that Jesus had experienced hell on the cross in our place–he went to hell so that no one else has to.  Like Barth himself, he gestured toward, but did not commit himself to, a doctrine of universal salvation, leaving open the door to annihilationist accounts, for instance.  And he made clear that salvation must always be accompanied by faith, but he did not necessarily confine the exercise of such faith to this life.  He did go so far as to say, in response to a question about the proper pastoral response to a dying person who asks what God has in store for them, that we can confidently assure them that God has already declared his mercy to them in Christ, and they have nothing to fear.  The mere fact that this dying person would ask such a question, he said, is a manifestation of some kind of struggling faith, and we can be confident that God will acknowledge that faith.  

 

Some remarks

If you’re like me, you’re probably reaching the end of this saying, “Huh, that’s it?  All that wild stuff in Lecture 4 and all that promise of a new reconstructed account of penal substitution, and the only really new thing we get (hardly new by modern standards) is a sweeping of the doctrine of Hell under the rug?”  I must say that little in the exegesis offered seemed strikingly original.  The emphasis on Jesus’s experience of God-abandonment, his consciousness of the divine wrath, as the heart of his sufferings, rather than mere physical torment and death, was certainly valuable, but in my experience, this has been well-emphasized by the best traditional interpreters.  The notion of the gradual withdrawal of the Spirit was new to me, though I doubt absolutely new, and I tend to think this is a very fruitful way of describing it.  I tend to think McCormack is right to foreground the “judicial” rather than the “cosmic” element, but I’m not yet sure why they must be played off against one another–the NT witness suggests that both are present.  Like Larry Hurtado in the previous lecture, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which McCormack wants to privilege Matthew and Mark, treating Luke and John as revisionists; he repeatedly affirms that their accounts must of course be taken on board as well, but seems awfully hesitant to actually do so.  The emphasis on Jesus experiencing Hell in our place seems like it may be quite a helpful emphasis, and though I want to be more cautious than McCormack in drawing the conclusions he wants to from that, I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand either.  I will return to reflect more on this last issue in my evaluative post(s) at the end of the lecture series.

The last lecture is today, and I should be able to put up a summary of that this weekend, followed by some reflections in response at the beginning of next week.  


The Eternal Humiliation of the Son (McCormack Croall Lecture #4)

Lecture #4 constituted a major turning-point in this series; in it, McCormack shifted out of a primarily critical gear and into a primarily constructive gear.  And with this turn, as the direction of his own proposal began to come into sharper focus, and the theology stepped further and further out onto the cliff-edge (or over the brink, as some might deem), tensions and misgivings mounted.  However, since I want to do full justice to the argument McCormack was trying to spell out, for his sake and for the sake of those who would have loved to hear these lectures themselves, I shall try to rigorously confine myself to recounting here, and reserve any discussion of my own reactions and questions until the series is complete.

Unsurprisingly, the more constructive turn in the series coincides with the treatment of Karl Barth and the eminent Barthian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  For McCormack himself admitted at the outset of the lecture that it is difficult to tell in his work where Barth ends and he begins; he tends to regard his own constructive work as nothing more than correcting Karl Barth by Karl Barth.  Many Barth scholars would of course fiercely object–the interpretation of Barth is a notoriously contentious matter–and would consider McCormack’s project a perversion of Barth.  McCormack is thus in the somewhat awkward position of trying to put forward a genuinely new dogmatic proposal, whose significance depends on its newness, while trying all the while to disclaim originality.  

Be all that as it may, the key starting points are clearly Barthian–the “actualistic” ontology (to be is to act), the consequent focus on the dynamic history of Christ, and the emphasis on God’s freedom-for-us, his freedom to become humble.  So how does McCormack develop these themes?  Unfortunately, time did not allow him to present all the material he had prepared, so what follows is perhaps not as fully coherent as he might have liked; the basic contour, however, should be fairly readily discernible

 

Barth

He began by remarking that Karl Barth’s theology of the cross could not be more out of step with Christian theologians today, even those who use his name.  For many today, Jesus Christ stands preeminently as the victim of an unjust political order; they certainly do not think that his death was willed by his heavenly Father.  Focus thus shifts from the saving significance of his death to the saving significance of his life.  But nothing could be more emphatically asserted by Karl Barth than the saving significance of the death of Christ.

Barth is insistent that Christ remains always sovereign even in his passion; he remains the Lord, he remains in control, he remains free.  For Barth, the cohesiveness of the Gospel narratives is destroyed if we read, as so many moderns, his predictions of his passion as later interpolations.  Christ’s death must not be allowed ot be considered in any way an unexpected defeat, but a sovereign victory. The point is not to lessen the darkness surrounding the death of Jesus; no one has made more than Barth of the cry of dereliction.  But we must allow the light of Easter to penetrate the event of the cross, lest we make Christ into no more than a tragic hero.

McCormack finds Barth so congenial for this project (ostensibly reworking penal substitution) because Barth took up the judicial frame of reference inherited from the Reformers and made it foundational to a teleologically-ordered divine ontology.  Barth’s synthesis is able to give due weight to the insights of ontological and moral influence theories as well.  Barth achieves all this in a way that intends to be post-metaphysical, that seeks to build every doctrine on the lived narrative of Jesus of Nazareth; however, McCormack noted that Barth failed in the end to purge metaphysics from his account entirely–that task, it seems, has fallen to McCormack himself to complete.

In CD IV.1, “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” Barth engages with the theme of penal substitution directly.  He clearly thinks it is appropriate to think of the atonement in terms of penal substitution.  But just as clearly, he does not think it should be made central to a well-ordered understanding of the atonement.  The root problem for Barth is that the atonement is seen to address only the problem of guilt in this model; it is not seen to entail that which he considers fundamental–the destruction of the sinner in the death of Jesus Christ.  Guilt still plays an important role in Barth’s theory, but there is also the problem of corruption.  Christ drinks the bitter cup of sin to its dregs, and in this accomplishes the end of the sinner, not merely the end of the sin that hangs over the sinner’s head.  For Barth, indeed, the penalty for sin is not something extrinsic and additional to sin itself; the wrath that awaits the unrepentant is no more or less than the final condition into which their sin irresistibly leads them, to a place of utter separation from God.  

The Reformers, thought Barth, erred in tending to treat the atonement as a purely external transaction between God and the human Jesus, not a transaction in God himself.  In place of this, Barth provides the possibility for a true integration of person and work of Christ, but in such a way that the person is defined by the work to be performed.

 

What Takes Place in the Passion and Death of Christ?

Barth’s summary statement sounds fairly traditional: Jesus subjects himself to divine wrath and judgment in our place.  But when we unpack Barth’s doctrine more clearly, we will find that it is anything but traditional; this emerges particularly in his treatment of the cry of dereliction.

Barth identified the experience which gave rise to the cry of dereliction with the experience of hell.  We see this particularly in CD III.2, where he suggests that it was in fact the being of Jesus in death that led the NT writers to reflect on the suffering of hell–the Sheol described in the OT does not come close to the intensity of anguish described in the NT.   Christ died not as the righteous victim, but precisely as the sinner, and thus,  in death, Jesus has God “against him”; for Christ, then, the realm of the dead becomes Hell–being in death becomes punishment, torment, outer darkness.  Because of the sufferings of Christ, the realm of the dead can now be understood not merely naturally, as in the Old Testament, but judicially.

The subject of the cry is variously described by Barth.  He can refer to him as simply “God.”  The meaning of the Incarnation, says Barth, is revealed in the cry of dereliction: The Incarnation means not merely God’s becoming a man, but God’s handing himself over to the contradiction of man against him, man’s being-against-God that, carried out to its extremity, results in the Hell of God-abandonment, of God’s being-against-man.  The experience that gives rise to cry is for Barth a human experience; but this human cry points beyond itself to a more profound truth–the subject of the cry is God.  There must be no reservation in God’s solidarity with us in Christ.  It is God who cries out; he cries with man, as one who has made himself one with man.  Indeed, the true deity of this divine subject is disclosed more clearly here than anywhere else, in his being-with-us and being-for-us.  

Having pushed this point, however, Barth draws back and emphasizes the humanness of the suffering and death, out of worry that in emphasizing the prior point, we might seem to say that God ceases to be God.  We must not let supreme praise of God become supreme blasphemy: “God gives himself, but he does not give himself away.”  Barth does not want the divine immutability to be undermined.  He thus unexpectedly says, “His God had not really forsaken him.”  It would then seem that Barth makes the God-abandonment real only for the human Jesus.  McCormack is dissatisfied with this reticence.  However, the crucial point remains–in CD IV.1, Barth has argued that the passion and death of Christ are human experiences that take place in God without detriment to God’s being as God. 

 

What Does this imply for the Being of the Mediator?

Before entering upon the most perilous and daring ground yet, McCormack paused to recite the judgment of Eberhard Jungel that in Church Dogmatics IV we have not merely the recapitulation of the first three sections (as is generally recognized) but in fact the revision, or even retraction, of them.  Whereas in I.1 the emphasis is on the Godness of God, the emphasis is now in IV.1 on the humanity of God.  The anti-metaphysical strain inherent in Barth’s thought from the beginning has now taken hold of the theology as a whole.  There is no separate section in CD IV on the Person of Christ–Christ simply is what he does.  McCormack sees this trajectory as legitimating his own project of attempting to carry forward the actualization of Christology and divine ontology that Barth had begun but never completed.  So what does Barth’s Christological ontology in CD IV.1 look like?  

There are two key features: First, Barth substitutes a hypostatic uniting that takes place throughout the life of Jesus Christ for a hypostatic union conceived as a completed fact: “The subject Jesus Christ simply is this history.”  Second, he bids a firm farewell to the abstract metaphysical subject–hypostasis–of Chalcedon.  In place of it he puts a living divine subject who realizes his eternal being in and through human humility and obedience in time.  

This latter point takes us back from the mere history of the man Jesus on earth into the ontology of the pre-existent word, the eternal background of divine self-realization.  Barth argues in IV.1 that Christ reveals that humility and obedience are not alien to the innermost being of God, but are in fact most proper to him.  Although Christ’s humiliation is a novum mysterium for us when it encounters us in history, it is nothing new for him, but what he has always been for the beginning, for God is eternal and changeless.  The self-emptying of Phil. 2:7-8 finds its ground in an eternal self-humiliation.  How can this be?  Barth answers this question in terms of an inter-Trinitarian relation which finds its ground in the eternal act of election: “a divine decision whose content is made essential to God in the eternal act of deciding.”  It is not merely a decision to do something, but an eternal act of self-constitution.  Indeed, it is this act that distinguishes the three persons of God from one another, who otherwise would remain merely empty abstractions.  There is nothing prior to and above this self-differentiation; God never was anything else.  Barth could hold both divine immutability and divine passibility, because passibility was part of the eternal being of God as a property belonging to the person of the Word.  Barth can also say that it is only the pride of man making a God in its own image that refuses to hear of this self-humiliating God.  Barth says that in the older Greek metaphysical doctrine of God, God was too exalted to be affected in any way by the incarnation–he was a prisoner of his own Godhead.  

Whew!  You might want to take a deep breath after that shot of cask-strength theology, cuz it gets even wilder (though if you read the post “God Died For Us…Really?” you’ve already gotten a foretaste of it.

 

McCormack now asks, but aren’t the humility and obedience of the Word in eternity and the humility and obedience of the man Jesus in time two different things?  How can Barth bring these two activities together so as to be the activity of a single unified subject?  If we can’t answer this question, the whole enterprise is rendered untenable: can the actualization of divine and human in a single shared history be rendered coherent?  Barth posits a “becoming-identical” of the humility of the eternal Son with that of the man Jesus, but although this points in a helpful direction, it remains rather patchy.  So now McCormack lays all his cards on the table: the problem is that to get death and God-abandonment as a human experience into the divine life would require something more than the mere act of identifying with Jesus on the part of the Son of God; it would require an ontological receptivity on the part of the Son toward all that comes to it from the humanity of Jesus.  Now, “receptivity” is not the same as “passivity” or “inactivity”–it is a sovereignly-willed activity which expresses itself in powerlessness.  This constitutes a dramatic reversal to the tendency of historical Christology.  It also enables us to emphatically unite the divine and human into one subject, because there is no such thing as a mere logos as such–there is only a Logos that acts humanly.  If receptivity is ontologically constitutive, then there is only the history of the man Jesus.  The history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus.  

Although Barth makes some initial moves that open the way for this, he does not follow through on them.  What McCormack thus proposes to offer is a Barthian supplement to Barth.  What is it then that Barth himself achieved?  An actualization of the doctrine of the person of Christ; a translation of the phenomenology into the sphere of a history.  

 

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Don’t worry, you’re not halfway through, but near the end.  McCormack only had a few things to say about von Balthasar, treating his account of Christ’s bearing of divine wrath and descent into hell as a necessary preliminary to part of the picture McCormack was going to sketch in lectures five and six.  My summary remarks here shall be proportionally even briefer than McCormack’s, since as with the preceding lectures, my mental capacities started to break down after about an hour of furious note-taking.  

Three main points then.  First, von Balthasar gives particular attention to the final testing in Gethsemane, where Jesus pleads with his Father for the cup to be withdrawn from him.  For von Balthasar, this wrath is the eschatological wrath of God that is described in the OT.  In Gethsemane, we have an eschatological testing which precedes the eschatological judgment of the cross.  At this point, Christ assumes universal guilt and thus becomes the object of the Father’s eschatological wrath, delivered up by the Father to the authorities even as he delivers himself up.

Second, regarding the cry of dereliction.  Von Balthasar too wants to make this moment in the Passion narratives central.  The cry of dereliction is the expression of a real abandonment of the Son by the Father in consequence of the burden of sinners that he bears; the death that Christ then dies is the “second death” of Rev. 2:11.  The torment of Christ on the cross is the death in the absence of God; it is the experience of hell. 

Third, von Balthasar is most (in)famous for his creative re-interpretation of the “descent into hell.”  He critiques the verb “descent,” since it implies an activity of which the dead are incapable.  Von Balthasar instead wants to understand this as a state of perfect passivity, incapacity; the realm of the dead is not fundamentally a place, but a condition.  It is this state of passivity which Jesus shares with all of the dead.  But Jesus suffered much more than this; the passivity for him is the mere precondition of the poena damni–the expeience of the wrath of God against sin.  What Christ suffers is the “vision of death” in its fullness.  Christ’s experience in death is the experience of Hell.  Like Barth, von Balthasar will argue that “Hell, in the New Testament sense, is a function of the Christ-event.”

 

Conclusion

In a brief peroration, McCormack summed up the contribution of these two as follows: Both of these theologians are determined to base everything on the witness of the lived history of Christ; both are to this extent post-metaphysical.  They are also both determined to offer a revised form of a penal substitution theory, since they do not like the way the penal substitution doctrine would seem to make the atonement  to effect a change in the attitude of God.  Instead, both insist that God’s wrath is the outworking of his holy love and thus both are able to integrate the person of Christ into his work. 

 

Q&A:

In the Q&A, Larry Hurtado challenged McCormack on whether or not he (and Barth and von B) was giving disproportionate emphasis on the Marcan Passion narrative, and even there, putting a particular spin on the cry of dereliction that isn’t justified exegetically.  Indeed, he asked whether there was really NT exegetical justification for language like God-abandonment.  Finally, he wondered whether all this was really post-metaphysical, and wasn’t rather just replacing one metaphysically-driven Christology with a different kind of metaphysically-driven Christology.  At this last remark, McCormack bristled, as he had when O’Donovan asked something similar, and insisted categorically that what he was doing was not metaphysical based on the definition he had offered at the outset.  To the former questions, he responded that he hoped to spell out his exegetical justification further in the fifth lecture, and that in any case, he thought it was appropriate to put emphasis on the Marcan account given his conviction that it was the first account written.

 

I then asked a question about how the idea that “the history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus” squared with the creative work of the Word in the beginning (John 1:2), traditionally a matter of great theological importance.  Unfortunately, McCormack only agreed to answer on condition that I not blog the answer here–to hear the full and proper answer, we’ll have to wait till a series of lectures he gives later this year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 😉