The place of the cross in the biblical narrative

In a series of talks at the Communitas International (formerly known as Christian Associates) staff conference in Budapest recently Greg Boyd argued 1) that American Christianity has been compromised and corrupted by its close association with state and especially military power; 2) that European Christendom was a disastrous departure from the authentic faith of the early church and should never have been allowed to happen; and 3) that the cross should be determinative for our reading of scripture and our understanding of God. Greg has a big new book coming out next year, I gather, with the title The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, which just about sums up the whole thesis.

It was all hugely stimulating and in many ways profoundly challenging for both discipleship and mission, but I found myself, not for the first time, dissenting from this retrospective post-Christendom orthodoxy. In my view, Greg is over-compensating.

1) It seems to me that the critique of a peculiarly modern American form of religion that happily celebrates military might has little direct relevance for the church in Europe. The First World War put a bloody end to that delusion.

2) I don’t think it makes either biblical or historical sense to dismiss 1700 years of Christendom as a massive error of judgment.

3) While I agree that the cross must remain at some level formative for the character and practice of the church, I think that the radical crucicentric hermeneutic obscures rather than clarifies the significance of Jesus’ death in the biblical narrative. In the context of modern American Christianity there may be a strong polemical justification for the move, but it is inevitably reductionist, and generally speaking that’s not a good thing.

Greg argued—I’m transcribing my scrappy notes here—that the cross is the centre of, or summation of, everything that God is about. The cross defines God. He is a self-sacrificial God. “Everything in the Bible points to the cross.” The Bible is not a recipe book, it’s more like a novel or a film; and the cross is that revelatory moment towards the end of a film that can reframe or reinterpret the whole preceding narrative. So everything looks different in the light of the cross.

The problem with centralizing the cross in this way—or any other motif, for that matter—is that the dynamic narrative shape of the Bible is sacrificed. What we have instead is the static and artificial arrangement of ideas or doctrines around a central organising theme. Greg’s film analogy works up to a point, but the cross is not the end of the story, and history doesn’t have a centre. History just keeps going. The biblical narrative keeps going. Greg barely mentioned the resurrection, and then only as God’s confirmation of the core significance of the cross.

So let’s reintroduce the temporal dimension.

The classic evangelistic diagram that puts the cross in the chasm between personal sin and personal salvation can be redrawn to good effect as part of the landscape of the historical narrative.

The cross is situated in the chasm of God’s “final” judgment on second temple Judaism. In this telling of the story it is the supreme expression of redemptive suffering, but it is not altogether unique. The servant of Isaiah 53 is probably the exile community, or perhaps more specifically the community of Jews born in exile, whose suffering was understood to have atoned for the sins of the nation. Through the atoning suffering of the righteous martyrs Israel survived the crisis provoked by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BC: “through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted” (4 Macc. 17:22).

But the story does not end with the cross. The cross serves as a bridge to the renewed future of the people of God. The resurrection of Jesus is not merely confirmation of the paradigmatic significance of his death. It is a vindication of his faithfulness and the means of his appointment to a position of power and authority at the right hand of God, with the confession of Christ as Lord by the idolatrous nations finally in view:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)

I presume that Paul knew the context in Isaiah 45 from which the language of the confession is drawn, which is one reason why I think it is right to expect a concrete political-historical outcome—the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world from polytheism to the worship of the one God of Israel.

In the narrative hermeneutic the cross is a critical historical-theological moment—without Jesus’ faithfulness unto death there would have been no future for the people of God, no renewal of the covenant, no outpouring of the Spirit, no judgment of the nations, no transformation of the ancient world. It has its antecedents, and at times the church has had to imitate Jesus rather closely—indeed, it was not the suffering of Jesus alone but that also of the early church that got the community beyond the chasm of God’s judgment on sinful Israel to the new life of the age to come.

But it distorts the narrative to claim that everything, before and after, is therefore cruciform. That’s not how stories work.

On the road to Emmaus Jesus says to the disciples, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). He then interprets Moses and the Prophets in the light of this—not the cross only but also the resurrection and the expectation that Christ would enter into his glory. We move on.

The message of Acts is consistently that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord and Christ, judge and ruler in the age to come. The cross hardly gets a mention. The good news is only secondarily that Jesus died for the sins of Israel or that his death opened up a door for the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the covenant people.

As the great high priest Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice” for the sins of Israel, and then “sat dow at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet” (Heb. 10:12-13).

The Lamb that was slain has conquered and has therefore the authority to open the scroll that will unleash judgment first on Israel, then on the nations (Rev. 5:1-10).

If any biblical theme demands to be made central, to be used as the key that unlocks the whole worldview, it is not the cross but the invitation to Jesus to “sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”.

To back up his claim that God is “like Jesus and nothing but like Jesus” Greg cited Hebrews 1:3: “He is the radiance (apaugasma) of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. But the frame of reference is the creative act, not the crucifixion. The exalted, glorified Son is the one “through whom also he made the ages”, who “bears all things by the word of his power”, who “become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (1:4). In Wisdom of Solomon it is said that wisdom is a “reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26). The point is that Jesus bears the imprint of the creator God, not that God bears the imprint of the crucified Jesus.

The emphasis may even have carried over into the early church. Jaroslav Pelikan suggests that the “modern Western Christian” will be surprised to note that when Christian writers of the second and third centuries addressed the question of salvation in Christ their emphasis was not on his death but on the “saving significance of the resurrection of Christ”.1 What they saw in the death and resurrection of Jesus was not the image of the cruciform God but the prospect of vindication and victory over their enemies—and the future rule of God over the nations. Which takes us back to my point about Christendom.

  • 1. J. Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 149.

Really appreciate this, Andrew. A lot of attempts to define the entirety of the Scriptures by a single event or category — Jesus’ crucifixion, his resurrection, or even the man himself — seem to have the effect of obscuring meaning more than helping with clarity in the sense that we have already pre-committed to a meta-narrative principle that has to be present in whatever we’re looking at.

I like the illustration of the red light, because that’s what happens. You turn on the red light, and everything in the room looks red. Whether or not those things are truly red is impossible to know because you’ve got the red light on. Things that were already red seem redder, and things that weren’t red at all now have at least a red shading.

Pursuing more narrative-historical approaches can’t totally escape this, of course, but the organizing principle tends to be what would have had significance to the original authors/receivers of a given text, and we also recognize this is a reconstructive project that is always up for critique and refinement.

Good stuff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so clearly and persuasively. I really appreciate it.

Alex Dalton | Thu, 08/11/2016 - 20:43 | Permalink

Excellent post!

“Jaroslav Pelikan suggests that the “modern Western Christian” will be surprised to note that when Christian writers of the second and third centuries addressed the question of salvation in Christ their emphasis was not on his death but on the “saving significance of the resurrection of Christ”.”

This seems to me to be Paul’s emphasis as well. After all, the crucifixion of supposed enemies of Rome was a common thing. It was the resurrection which was supernatural evidence of God’s favor on Christ, and the promise of the greater resurrection to come. I wonder if the evangelical Church hasn’t gone off track in its insistence that the crucifixion (rather than the resurrection) was a salvific act on an individual level (“Christ died for MY sins”).

Good food for thought this morning. Thanks

davey | Fri, 08/12/2016 - 19:56 | Permalink

I don’t know how 1 Corinthians 15 might go with it (24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.), but what if Christendom was established as expected, but the dissolution of it at present can be understood as an advance, not a retrogression. So, for there to be henceforth not an official community as of a nation or a church, but a different kind of community of those who are ‘the salt of the Earth’. Then, ‘God being all in all’ would be the latter situation, though, fair enough, with a final end still to come. See also Peter’s comments in ‘Mission — the narrative-historical board game’.

peter wilkinson | Sun, 08/14/2016 - 10:59 | Permalink

The servant of Isaiah 53 is probably the exile community, or perhaps more specifically the community of Jews born in exile, whose suffering was understood to have atoned for the sins of the nation.

While there’s much to comment on in the post, I just draw attention to this statement. The servant in Isaiah both in and beyond Isaiah 53 is clearly more than one figure: sometimes representing sinful exiled Israel, and sometimes a figure who comes to redeem sinful Israel — occasionally both appearing together in the same passage.

In Isaiah 53, the servant bears some characteristics of Israel, the people sent into exile, but in some senses not. Perhaps the most obvious example is 9a — “he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth”. This does not describe the people in exile, and the reasons for which they had been sent into exile.

The story of Israel in exile is of a nation living without forgiveness of sins, in the broader sense which the term implies (not in the narrower individual or personal sense). Forgiveness of sins would come, or be shown, when the nation returned from geographical exile, and God returned to the temple — a return from spiritual exile.

In the time of Jesus, all the indicators are that forgiveness of sins had not occurred, and Israel was still living under the curse of national disobedience and the Deuteronomic sanctions.

The long and the short of it is that Isaiah 53 must refer to some person other than simply Israel the nation in exile, or even the returnees from exile. This was the general understanding of things in Israel in the time of Jesus, as illustrated amply in the extra-canonical literature, or even Ezra/Nehemiah.

Since the servant in Isaiah is sometimes an individual set against the servant as Israel the nation, Jesus has been taken by the NT scriptures to fulfil the role — as he does in the seven quotations from Isaiah 53 in the NT.

It also follows that the various details of Isaiah 53 refer to Jesus as well.

No doubt I’m illustrating an uncanny knack of missing the point again. I just see it as a correction to an important detail in your argument.

By the way, I also just noticed that a previous post appeared as one long columnular paragraph — the spacings not having been inserted in the rich text version. This makes it seem more of a rant than it was supposed to be. My apologies. I was trying to make some serious points, with a bit of spicy subdued invective just to liven it up a bit.