A proper theology of the cross, if you think about it, is simply Christian talk for the mending of broken relationships. As such, it involves two dialogue partners. The first is the arena in which these broken relationships are experienced, namely creation. The second has to do with the One with whom we experience this broken relationship, God.
I choose the word creation deliberately, because in a culture increasingly addicted to individualistic and therapeutic notions of salvation we need to remind ourselves that God’s intentions for us are intimately linked with those for the wider creation. When we articulate our understanding of creation we are, according to the Jewish and Christian faiths, describing an understanding of reality as perceived from within the context of a dynamic, personal, and existential relationship with the living God. It is, then, a specifically theological understanding of reality—a way of describing creaturely existence, whether personal or impersonal, in its relation to its creator, the God of Abram, Isaac, and Israel; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is against this view of reality that the cross is to be understood. And at the center of this understanding, summarized by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31, is the idea of loving God with one’s entire being, and one’s neighbor as oneself. Why? Because this is the Creator’s intended goal for creation.
It is right, then, to talk of creation as a “matrix of creaturely associations” (M. Welker, Creation and Reality [Fortress, 1999] 13), a realm of interrelated and interdependent relations or associations. It has, if I may misappropriate a term used by the Orthodox concerning divine being, a perichoretic identity, in which each aspect of the created particular stands in deep association with the created whole. What exists does so within a network of relational associations, that, when fulfilled, promise abundance and security, that are personally expressed through being in proper association with oneself, with those around, and with the Lord God.
It is here that we locate the grounds for why we are called to live by faith: the original modus vivendi of creation is one of faithful relational associations within and out with creation. This fundamental creational fact constitutes the created order not only as faithful—since all that exists comes into being from One who invests faith in it—but one in which we are called to invest, and one that calls us to invest faith in our selves, each other, and the Creator. In so doing, creation gives proper worth, offers glory back to its Creator.
Thus, to be human is to inhabit a network of associations that relate human beings to the wider created order as well as to self, to other as male or female and to God whom they image. In a nutshell, our humanity is established within a matrix of relations and associations: we are to the degree we relate; as ego and other, as self and neighbor, as creature and Creator. J.D. Zizioulas correctly sums it up thus: “It is communion which makes beings ‘be’: nothing exists without it, not even God” (Being as Communion [St Vladimir’s Press, 1985] 17). Our true identity is discovered and established only to the degree that the matrix of relations established at creation informs each.
In summary, then, creation is a set of creaturely/material relational associations. These associations are, in turn, constituted by what we may describe as “mutual relational expectations” that constitute each particular relation. Thus, being a son or daughter is constituted by the relational expectations specific to that relation, which, in turn, differ from those that constitute being a mother or father, employee or employer. Our identities, thus, are not merely biological (this constitutes what I am); rather, they are relationally derived (constituting who I am) and have meaning only in terms of the mutually agreed “expectations” to which each relationship holds. Only to the degree that we live within and fulfill these expectations do we have life in all its potential and abundance.
So, what does the cross mean from the perspective of creation and the Father’s participation in the act of redemption through the mediating presence of the Son empowered by the Father’s Spirit? Let me highlight two points since I believe that the act of unbelief and distrust on the part of the first couple, and, perpetuated by all subsequent humans bar Jesus himself, results in two important considerations.
The first concerns the “what” of atonement. Our human actions carry with them very real consequences. Lying at the very heart of the created order is an inbuilt penalty clause for the relational. Without exception personal actions within creation have consequences, for good and for ill: (1) in relation to creation as the arena of labor and produce, there is the curse (rather than blessing) of disorder and mistrust; (2) in relation to interpersonal relations between ego and other, self and neighbor, whether male to female or female to male, there is dysfunction and disharmony; (3) in relation to human procreation, what was good becomes painful and disordered, thus laying foundations for subsequent generational discord; and (4) in relation to God, a relation of openness becomes disordered wherein sin distorts the creature’s perception of God and becomes blinded to the Creator’s good will.
This is what the cross signifies: the breakdown of creaturely associations carries with it significant consequences all of which lead, ultimately, to the death of the persons involved as well as the destruction of their habitat, all consequences of the creature’s desire for self-determination.
The second concerns the “how” of atonement. Here we are confronted with the very nature of God’s character. Once again, the Genesis narrative offers us a window. As a result of the relational breakdown the Creator’s first response is to extend grace towards those who have been unfaithful. As such, the act of exclusion from the original soil is a gift to the unfaithful image bearers, performed in order to limit the scope of their actions’ consequences lest they eat of the tree of life itself and live an eternal life of self-determination with all its catastrophic consequences. Here, we see the character of the Creator whose initial instinct is to save the fallen image bearers and preserve them from the ultimate consequences of their actions.
I want to suggest here that we discover the foundations for later interpretations of the cross as the place where the Lord of creation both covers our sins and stems the consequences of our relational dysfunction, and that it is an act of God’s initiative, not ours. It is a gift given when not merited, and as such, received only through trust on the part of both parties. It is a demonstration of the nature and character of divine love, one that does not demand justice alone before forgiveness can be acquired and the relationship restored, but one which makes provision to arrest the destructive consequences of the faithless creature’s actions. Herein we are confronted with the manner by which divine love covers sin.
For instance, in escaping the tyranny of Egypt—Exod 12—this divine gifting operates in terms of interchange and identification: interchange in that the sacrificed lamb stands in place of the firstborn, identification in that the household identifies with the symbol of life. In so doing, the lamb secures their escape. The blood is an expression of trust, of relational fidelity; indeed, of faithful dependence upon the God who has revealed himself to Moses. What we have here is the outworking of the original ontology of faith, of creaturely dependence on God and on one’s neighbor (in this case, the word of Moses, and, therefore upon Moses himself).
Alternatively, the rite of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 describes, first, a recognition that certain sins cannot be washed away or paid for. Rather, it takes the gracious provision of Yahweh of the scapegoat to arrest the potentially catastrophic dynamic of sin that comes about as a result of the rebellious responses of each personality whether in relation to self, neighbor, or God. As in the garden so in the desert, God makes provision for what is his. Hence, the goat is not killed but rather is led out to the desert as a symbolic reminder that the sins have not been absolved by being removed by an action on the nation’s part. Rather, they are transferred to the scapegoat and thus removed and disempowered. Once again, it is God who provides the covering for sin and does so in order to achieve the intended goal for creation in the first place—that is, relationship. Again, it is an underscoring of the fact that atonement has to do not only with personal forgiveness but also to do with the re-ordering of creation itself.
In this enactment I want to suggest that divine justice is still being met.
First, there is creational justice, a rule of creation to which we must adhere. The biblical witness suggests that this can only occur sacramentally, whether the sacrifices of Abel or of the cultus, or in the demonic release into a herd of pigs, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or in the familiar elements of bread and wine. Herein lies the twofold rationale for substitution: (1) the life of one is given for the other as evidence of the fact that a space, time, historical relational association has been breached that requires a similar expression before it can be resolved; and (2) the severity of the consequence reflects the degree of relational dysfunctioning in that the pathology is symptomatic of the sinner’s being, and, therefore requires the removal of that being. The sin is about who I am, not what I do, primarily.
Second, there is a divine and personal justice: we sin against persons not an impersonal creation. Here we confront the substitutional nature of God’s justice. Yes, there is what we may describe as “raw justice” where we are simply given over to the ultimate consequence of our actions—death—and justice is done. In this sentence, God’s law is upheld and the sinner proven guilty. What I want to suggest, however, within this relational understanding of creation and Creator, is that the gracious act on the Father’s part in giving up his Son to mediate his love and become a substitute in human form enables us to avoid reifying two theological control mechanisms. The first concerns the necessity for purely penal interpretations of the death of Christ that source the penal dimension and its consequences in the character of God. Such a controlling mechanism inevitably results in the Edwardsian premise that God does not necessarily need to love but he does need to judge. This introduces the second control-mechanism: atonement is primarily a desire for justice. Rather, for the restoration of relations—and, therefore atonement—to occur God’s love must take priority over divine justice, and do so by going beyond the boundaries established by this particular set of juridical, relational expectations.
In that God meets us personally in his Son who became one of us ultimately acts as the guarantee for our reconciliation. We are empowered to believe that this is a possibility within the present created order for two reasons. For one, we hold to a robust biblical doctrine of divine agency, which understands creation to be the work of a wise and dependable Creator in which human beings are the point of contact between the purely immanent (creation) and the purely transcendent (God). For another, the means by which the association of relations between God and creation privileges divine love over human understandings of justice is rooted firmly in the fact that God does not give us up to the consequences of our actions. In the mystery that is expressed on the cross, we see a demonstration of the lengths to which the Father seeks us out in order that the torn fabric of our relational associations may be restored to its rightful glory by the faithful obedience of his Son and the ongoing agency of his Spirit.
It is because of this priority of love that I believe any doctrine of atonement worth the term “biblical” must move in two dimensions: (1) it must maintain a sacramental notion of a sacrificial substitute in which the power and the pathology of sin is destroyed. This safeguards the true human cost of our salvation against contemporary therapeutic approaches; and, (2) it must turn on the notion of resurrection, since the imperative of atonement is driven by the desire for relationship. Herein are we confronted by the tri-personal dimension of atonement that in the humanity of the obedient Son, the Father’s disposition towards creation and unfaithful humanity finds actualization. The barrier to relationship and the power holding us and the rest of creation in captivity is destroyed through the self-giving of the Son to the full consequences of our dysfunctional ways of relating and the Father’s response to this. As a result, the consequences of the Son’s faith in the Father are demonstrated in the power displayed in raising him from the dead to a position of power and authority in which the rest of the faithful live and have their hope.