Tom Wright – The Cross and the Caricatures

An excellent piece by NT on the Fulcrum website. Make a cup of tea and go and have a read of the full piece.

Now, it seems, the fuss has itself become news. The Church Times carried an article (13 April 2007, p. 5) describing how Dr John has received abusive hate mail (well, we all get that), and a silly headline (‘Christ did not die for our sins’; well, we all get silly headlines too, and they are not usually written by the reporter). And in a letter published in the same issue of the paper, he protests that he is simply following the line taken by the 1995 Doctrine Commission report, The Mystery of Salvation, which itself at this point follows the famous 1938 Commission.

I am glad, of course, that Dr John gives such a high value to such reports – higher, perhaps, than the authors themselves would have done; speaking as one of the authors of the 1995 Report, I would say that it represented a complex conversation frozen in a moment of time rather than a definitive conclusion. But he might perhaps have looked closer. The Mystery of Salvation notes that substitutionary atonement is taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and that this enshrines ‘a vital truth’, which can best be got at through the language of ‘vicarious’ suffering (p. 212). And, while perfectly properly emphasizing that the ultimate subject of the action in the death of Jesus is God himself (presumably God the Father), the Report notes (p. 213), immediately after the passage quoted from the 1938 Report to which Dr John refers (‘the notion of propotiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unChristian’), that ‘it is nevertheless true that in Paul’s thought the effect of expiation is the same as that of propitiation – to neutralise the sin that is the cause of God’s displeasure and so to avert God’s wrath (however that should be understood).’ While noting the obvious problems with a crude doctrine of propitiation (a loving Jesus placating a malevolent God), the Report goes on to point out (p. 214) that both Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Calvin, spoke in terms of God himself providing the propitiation for his own wrath. The problem of the crude formulation was, in other words, already well known in the Greek and Latin Fathers, and this did not prevent them from continuing to see Jesus’ death in terms of propitiation even while insisting that the work from start to finish was the result of God’s love. Granted, the 1995 Report does scant justice to the history of the idea of substitution, both penal and otherwise, giving the bizarre impression that the idea was merely invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin, as though it were not also to be found in several of the Fathers, a good many of the mediaeval writers, and more or less all the Reformers, not least Martin Luther. But that is only to say that the Report, like all such productions, should not be taken as a definitive account either of what Anglicans are supposed to believe or of what they believe in fact.

We might also note that the 1995 Report had also spoken, earlier, of Jesus as having ‘died our death, sharing our failure, condemnation, despair and godforsakenness’ (p. 103, italics added). Earlier again, and more fully (and answering in a measure to Jenson’s request for the story of the cross to be more biblically rooted), the Report stated:

In going to the cross, Jesus acted out his own version of the total story, according to which Israel, represented by himself, must be the people in and through whom the creator God would deal with the evil of the world and of humankind. The cross, as the execution of Israel’s Messiah outside Jerusalem at the hands of the pagans, was thus the great summation of Israel’s exile, which was itself the fulfilment and completion of the ambbiguous and tragic story of Israel as a whole. At the same time, the cross was the supreme achievement of Israel’s God, returning to Zion as he had promised, to deal with his people’s sins and their consequences. (p. 77f.)

Dr John is thus mistaken if he supposes that the 1995 Report shares his enthusiasm for doing away with all talk of God’s condemnation of sin and of that condemnation being a key element in the meaning of the cross. What about the 1938 Report? Here again things are more nuanced than Dr John’s rejection of a caricature would indicate. In a special Note ‘On the Wrath of God against Sin’, the 1938 Report comments:

It is to be observed . . . that in the New Testament the “love” and the “wrath” of God in relation to sin and forgiveness are closely connected [referring in a footnote to Romans 5.8 in parallel with Romans 1.18], and that is an important sense in which the assertion of God’s “wrath” against sin is the indispensable presupposition of any properly Christian doctrine of forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness where there is indifference towards either the offender or the offence.

After giving an illustration in which someone’s ‘wrath’ at the betrayal of trust expresses condemnation of the deed but the desire to be reconciled with the perpetrator – as opposed to a pure, cold hostility – the Report concludes that

“Wrath” in this ethical sense is not only compatible with love, but in its purest form cannot exist apart from love. Righteous wrath cannot be based on self-concern, nor at its best is it consistent with any loss of self-control such as characterises the primitive emotion of anger. (Doctrine in the Church of England. London: SPCK, 1938, 71.)

Thus we should not be surprised when the Report goes on to stress that God’s love ‘is a holy love, and therefore always actively affirms itself both in condemning sin and also in striving to restore and to remake the sinner’ (p. 91). Like Jenson, the Report insists that the meaning of the Cross must be taken in its larger narrative context. And, like traditional Anglicanism as expressed in Cranmer’s liturgy and the Thirty-Nine Articles – but not like Dr John – the Report declares that ‘The Cross is a satisfaction for sin in so far as the moral order of the universe makes it impossible that human souls should be redeemed from sin except at a cost. Of this cost the death on the Cross is the expression . . . Thus the Cross is a “propitiation” and “expiation” for the sins of the whole world’ (p. 92f.). Of course, there is much more to what the Report says than that; but not less. If Dr John wishes to invoke these Reports – not, I insist once more, that they carry, for Anglicans, the same authority as scripture or even as the church’s historic liturgy and Articles – he should note that they offer something whose existence he does not wish to acknowledge: a way of affirming that the Cross does after all have something to do with God’s wrathful condemnation of sin but which is not the same as the caricature that both Reports, like Dr John and many of the rest of us, reject.

Posted in Theology