What Was God Doing on the Cross?

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It’s said that good theology properly issues in doxology. I know that a carefully reasoned theological argument always makes me want to sing!  And the day that I first read this statement by Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844) – one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition – on the Atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross) when I was in Seminary, I was literally moved to thankful praise –

wigA father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.

The generosity of this perspective seemed to me then to best fit the actual diversity of what the Bible says about what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross, the church’s “official” teaching (or, more technically, the church’s lack of an “official” teaching) on the atonement, and my own peculiar spiritual temperament.  What I really liked about Stone’s analogy of the father’s provision is that, if fully embraced, it can put a stop to the kind of theological imperialism that insists that you see things my way, and my way alone if you are going to sit with me at the church’s dinner table.

Back in the day this analogy liberated me from some spiritual bullying that I was experiencing from my fellow conservative colleagues and peers who insisted that the only way to be truly faithful to the Bible’s message of the cross was to think and talk about it exclusively through the grid of the substitutionary atonement interpretation of its meaning. This is the way that I was first taught to think about the cross, and it is still deeply ingrained in me spiritually.  It continues to inform the way that I think about the meaning of the cross on Sunday mornings when I go to the Lord’s Table.  It’s not the only way I think about the meaning of the cross, but it is invariably the first way that I do so. I have a deep appreciation for the truth of the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross in my faith, and a genuine respect for its very real power in my life.  But, I know enough about the Bible and the history of Christian thought to know that this is not the only way to think and talk about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, and that it never has been.

Today I find that Stone’s analogy has had to take up position on my left flank. Many of my progressive colleagues and peers don’t find the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross to be either compelling or particularly helpful to them.  And that’s fine — Barton W. Stone didn’t either.  But what Stone’s analogy doesn’t allow for is for the kind of theological incredulity that its critics display at the very suggestion that any thinking Christian anywhere might still find the substitutionary atonement interpretation of the cross to be meaningful. It’s one thing to talk about how and why you don’t find this theory particularly useful for yourself, and another thing altogether to insist that nobody else dare find it useful for them.  Stone’s analogy of the family dinner table where different understandings of how the father provides for his children would seem to argue for greater freedom of thought and a better generosity of spirit.

I didn’t like it one little bit back in the day when my conservative brothers and sisters called into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those who needed a different way, or additional ways of thinking and talking about the meaning of the cross than the substitutionary atonement theory. And I don’t like it one little bit now when my more progressive brothers and sisters call into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those of us who still find the substitutionary atonement theory to be meaningful.

A much better approach, it seems to me, and one so much more consonant with Stone’s dinner table analogy, is Scot McKnight’s Golf bag analogy of atonement theories –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

Because I know myself to be a sinner of herculean potential and endless possibility, last Wednesday in the noon Bible Study that I teach I was moved in my spirit to doxology with Paul after some of his characteristic theological ponderings –

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

The “sure and worthy of full acceptance” phrase in these verses – “That Christ came into the world to save sinners” tees up the substitutionary atonement theory as a primary way for me to work with and make sense of what the Bible teaches about what God was doing in Christ on the cross.  But it’s not just that.  It’s also personal, deeply personal for me.  With Richard Mouw I conclude –

Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis—debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God.

This is the thought that will quite literally drive me to my knees and move me to tears, probably more than once, before this week, Holy Week, is through. If it doesn’t you, that’s okay. It confuses me, to be sure.  I don’t “get” how the power and beauty of this scheme of redemption can leave you untouched.  But I’m really not interested in arguing with you about it.  Instead I’m perfectly content to sit at the family dinner table with you and your alternate understandings of how our Father has provided us this rich banquet of grace, and for us just to enjoy it together as brothers and sisters.

What God did for us on the cross is big enough for us to be able to think different thoughts about its meaning and to experience it in different ways. But just as you don’t want me as a theological traditionalist to call into question your place at the family dinner table as a theological progressive, or to disrespect your perspective or disregard your interpretation, so don’t try to relegate me to the theological kid’s table, or worse, sent to my room just because you don’t find my perspectives convincing or my interpretations compelling. That’s not what families do at a dinner table that’s as big as ours is. DBS +

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