by Robert Chestnut
Over the past several decades so many progressive Christian thinkers have raised so many critical problems with traditional theories of cross and atonement that one must wonder if the cross is now lost to progressive Christianity.
The penal substitutionary theory of atonement — first fully developed by Anselm (1033-1109) in “Cur Deus Homo” — has received the harshest criticism. How, ask the critics, can it be either just or loving that a just and loving God would send an innocent son to suffer and die on the cross in order to satisfy God’s demands for sin’s punishment? Doesn’t this whole scheme of atonement rest upon a repugnant act of criminal abuse, even outright filicide by God? Furthermore, by elevating deadly scapegoating to a holy plan of salvation, doesn’t this traditional thinking about the cross actually condone and perpetuate the continuation of violent scapegoating throughout human history?
Can progressive Christianity no longer find any convincing place for a cross-centered notion of salvation? Ever since researching the question as a student at Harvard Dvinity School in the early 1960s, I have been convinced that there is a view, rooted in Scripture and tradition, that offers an approach that is much less problematic, far more positive and comprehensive in scope than penal substitutionary theory. This understanding of the divine will and redemptive plan that emphasizes restorative justice rather than punitive justice, working through a Christ-centered process of participation rather than substitution.
Recently, this view has been persuasively articulated by Derek Flood in his grace-filled book, “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross.” Flood is clear, however, that this approach, rooted in Paul and essential for Calvin, is really nothing new or innovative. For Paul, Christ is our new Adam (Romans 5:11-21), the divine representative of our new humanity. He comes to us from God as one of us, a divine participant in our human nature whose work is both to embody and to restore humanity to God’s original intention. First our redeemer descends; then he ascends (Philippians 2:1-11). This is the pattern of humanity’s re-creation — a divine descent in human form; into and through the abyss of ignominious death on a cross; and then ascent up and out into blessedness, exaltation and glory on the other side.
The agent of our restoration must plunge into that dark, watery abyss of our alienation from God, from one another, from our own truest selves. He must bear the suffering of it. But this is not divine punishment; this is reality. As anyone passing from addiction to recovery knows all too well: There is no easy way over, no way out but through. The recognition of pain inflicted upon self and others must be acknowledged, endured, borne.
For Paul, Christ does this work of redemption/ restoration not that we might simply stand at the foot of his cross in awe-struck, grateful faith — a passive role in which the traditional emphasis on substitution tends to place us. It is, rather, that we might participate, might join Christ in his saving work of restoring our true humanity. Christ represents who we, by God’s grace, are to become. Christ does what we, by God’s grace, are also to do.
The sacred work of humanity’s renewal in Christ is to become embodied in and enacted by us. Rather than mere spectators of the divine drama of cross and resurrection, we are called to become actors on the stage. Baptism is the initiating rite by which we become incorporated into Christ and his saving work (Romans 6:1- 4). We take that plunge with Christ — our own symbolic death, burial and resurrection through those dark waters, taking on our own cross that will lead us into new life.
So this is not just about absolving us. This is about a profoundly life-transforming process that bears concrete moral and ethical implications. It is about, as Paul says in Philippians 2, having the same mind in us that was in Christ, that disposition of humble, loving service. It is about dying to our old selves, our self-centered, egocentric selves so that we might be borne up and out of those waters of death into new selves, God-centered and neighbor-centered selves.
This is Paul. And this is very much John Calvin for whom these themes of incorporation into Christ and participation (koinonia) in his saving work were absolutely central. Christ, for Calvin, is not merely a substitute, standing in our stead before God. Christ leads the way; Christ is the way into which we are called to follow, both sacramentally and ethically. Justification by grace through faith, joining Christ in his saving death and resurrection, and the life-long process of sanctification are indissolubly linked. The result is an active, activist faith, transforming self and society.
Unlike so much of penal substitutionary thinking, this understanding of the cross does not displace the salvific significance of Christ’s life: his teachings, his works of merciful service and deliverance, his death as a courageous prophet who spoke truth to power and died faithful to the claim of the kingdom he proclaimed. If God in Christ has come to restore human nature, then the life he lived, the values he embodied and for which he died are an essential part of his work of human restoration. Christ’s life is an offering to God of the restored humanity God wants from each of us — a life given fully to God and neighbor. God has come to us not only to die, but also to live the life that we are called to live.
Anselm was concerned with the absolute seriousness of sin and about God justice’s being satisfied in dealing with it. If justice, however, is ultimately about setting things right, then we can surely see God’s merciful justice fulfilled in this telling of the story of redemption/restoration. Yes, it is a painful course as it leads through the cross. But then it is through participating in Christ’s offering of his redeeming life, death and resurrection that we are carried by the Spirit into the new life and finally into the glory of our fully restored humanity that has always, from the very beginning, been God’s destiny for us.
ROBERT A. CHESNUT is pastor emeritus of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.