Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Cross: new religions, new theologies and the only difference in a pluralistic society 1

Parker Williamson, of the Layman wrote an article several days ago entitled “Breast Theology Uplifted at Union Seminary.” He wrote, “Union Theological Seminary’s 2010 Sprunt Lectures will feature a feminist speaker who favors replacing the cross with a lactating breast. The event will occur May 3-5 on the seminary’s Richmond, Va., campus.” Williamson also linked to an article in The Christian Century, “God’s love, mother’s milk, an image of salvation” by the lecturer Margaret R. Miles. (picture: Fountain of Diana of Ephesus by Yair Haklai)

Miles who attempts to make the image of the breast, via Mary the mother of Jesus, as important as the cross as a symbol of God’s love writes this comment with a question, “There are problems with the crucifixion scene as a representation of God's love for humanity. It presents a violent act as salvific. Are crucifixion scenes the unconscious origin, deeply embedded in Western Christian societies, of the sacrificial rhetoric that surrounds war?”

Miles goes on to suggest that, “In societies in which violence is rampant on the street and in the media, the nursing Virgin can perhaps communicate God's love to people in a way that a violent image, the image of one more sacrificial victim, cannot.” In the face of this I will be posting in parts an article I wrote several years ago for a workshop for Evangelical Ministries to New Religions. It has just recently been published in the Midwestern Journal of Theology of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary among several other papers given at their conferences.[1]

My article:

The Cross: New Religions, New Theologies and the Only Difference in a Pluralistic Society.

Recently, in her address to the 2002 Covenant Conference,
* Anna Case-Winters, Professor of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary, suggests that for our atonement, “‘The incarnation’ would be enough!” She also advocates for the theological position of Abelard, the medieval scholastic who held a position of atonement referred to as moral influence or example.[2]That is, the death of Christ on the cross becomes an example of the willingness to suffer for others and for that reason Jesus Christ is followed and loved. Other proponents of this view of the cross and salvation were Socinus, a sixteenth century theologian who also denied the Trinity[3], and Friedrich Schleiermacher the father of nineteenth century liberal theology.

Pelagius is seen as an early anticipation of this view, since he believed humanity capable of living up to God’s requirements of holiness.[4]At present, some contemporary theologians are attempting to get rid of the meaning of the cross in far more radical ways.

Delores S. Williams, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, in her book, Sisters in The Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, writes, “People do not have to attach sacred validation to a bloody cross in order to be redeemed or to be Christians.”[5] Going further, Carter Heyward, Professor of Theology at Episcopal Divinity School, pictures atonement on the cross as a feature of a violent aspect of patriarchal Christianity. She writes:

"The deity we must reject is the one whose power over us is imagined to be his love, the god who morally can destroy us. Such a concept of deity is evil—a betrayal itself of our power in mutual relation—in a world being torn to pieces by violence done in the names of gods who demand blood sacrifice. Such god-images feed twisted psychospiritualities that normalize sadistic and masochistic dynamics, rape and intimate violence, abuse of children, relationships of domination and control, violence against people and all creatures, and wars justified as holy.[6]"

Contrary to these distorted views of the cross and atonement I wish to hold up the orthodox view and show how it is in reality the central difference in a world of diverse religions both old and new. My central theme is that Christ’s atonement on the cross is the place where evil is expelled from religious belief; that where the cross is emphasized in its true biblical meaning there is true transformation. I also want to emphasize that all religions, including Christianity, hold within their traditions the seeds of evil. Where the cross loses its meaning there Christianity itself stands in danger of being overcome by the evil within humanity.

I will begin by examining the biblical and historical views of atonement. I will look at the potential for evil in religion including Christianity and explain the importance of the cross in addressing the new religions and the new theologies of our time. This entails explaining how Christ’s death on the cross is God’s answer not only for our salvation but cuts through the violence of human attempts to connect with God. I will show how both ruthless violence and sloppy sentimentality in religion are answered by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The biblical view of atonement begins in the Old Testament. The sacrifices of the Old Testament are looking forward to the coming of Christ and to the work of Christ on the cross. They are incomplete without Him. We find in the first part of chapter 10 of the book of Hebrews that the Old Testament sacrifices are a “shadow of the good things to come.” The author of Hebrews weaves the verses of Psalms 40:6 into the picture of Jesus’ body as sacrifice.

Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) to do Your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:5-7)

These verses, which seemingly deny the need for sacrifice as a means of salvation, really illustrate the need for the death of Jesus on the cross. F.F. Bruce, writing about these verses, sees the Old Testament sacrifices as requiring the “obedient heart” and Christ offers that “wholehearted obedience.” Quoting J. Denny’s The Death of Christ, Bruce writes, “Our author’s contrast is not between sacrifice and obedience, but between the involuntary sacrifice of dumb animals and ‘sacrifice into which obedience enters, the sacrifice of a rational and spiritual being, which is not passive in death, but in dying makes the will of God its own.’”[7]Bruce goes on to explain that while it was the Father’s will for Jesus to die, “it was also His own spontaneous choice.”[8]Elaborating further and once again quoting Denny, he writes:

“It is the atonement which explains the incarnation: the incarnation takes place in order that the sin of the world may be put away by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ.” The offering of His body is simply the offering of Himself; if here sanctification and access to God are made available through His body, in verses 19 and 29 they are made available through His blood. Whether our author speaks of His body or His blood, it is His incarnate life that is meant, yielded to God in an obedience which was maintained even to death. So perfect a sacrifice was our Lord’s presentation of His life to God that no repetition of it is either necessary or possible: it was offered “once for all.”[9]

[1] The Editor, Professor N. Blake Hearson, writes that all the papers were given at the 2009 conference but mine was given much earlier. Some of my readers may find several of the other articles very interesting including a debate by Craig Evans Professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College & Steven J. Patterson Professor of New Testament Eden Theological Seminary. Their topic “Doubting Thomas: Is the Gospel of Thomas an Authentic Witness to Jesus?”

* The Covenant Network is an independent group within the Presbyterian Church USA whose members advocate for the ordination of homosexuals and for Progressive Theology.

[2] Anna Case-Winters, “Who Do You Say That I Am? Believing In Jesus Christ in the 21st Century,” Address to the 2002 Covenant Conference, November 9, 2002.

[3] For information on Socinus see: I. Breward, “Socinus and Socinianism,” New Dictionary of Theology, The Master Reference Collection, editors Sinclair B. Ferguson, et al, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press 1988) 649.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life: Systematic Theology: Volume Two, First HarperCollins paperback edition, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1992) 404.

[5] Delores s. Williams, Sisters In The Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2001) 201.

[6] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What it means to be Christian, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1999) 175.

[7] J. Denny, The Death of Christ, (London: 1951), p131, in F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to The Hebrews, The New International Commentary On The New Testament, reprint, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing 1981) 234.

[8] Ibid, 235.

[9] Ibid. Denny, Death, 131. in, and Bruce, Hebrews, 236.


Rev. Steven S. Bryant said...

I think Parker Williamson wrote the article in the Layman. No need to post this comment but I knew you would want to correct your blog post - which, by the way is typically magnificent. Thanks.

Viola Larson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Viola Larson said...

I can see it is going to be one of those days. Thanks Steven, I just corrected it. That's what I get for reading Facebook too much.

Pastor Bob said...

The curious thing is that a theology that adds the image of Christ (not Mary) as a nursing mother who feeds us with faith to the theology of the atonement would be just fine, in my opinion. If Jesus can be the mother hen who gathers her chicks under her from protection Jesus can also be the nursing mother who feeds us. But feeding is not enough. Humanity needs the death of Jesus as atonement. We need liberation from sin through the death of Jesus

Viola Larson said...

Amen, Bob. And as I was posting this I thought about the milk of the word. Also last night as I was discussing this theme with a friend-he reminded me of Jesus' words to the lady who said, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed." Jesus said, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." (Luke 11: 27-28)

Dave Moody said...

All language is not metaphor (Theology Matters, Andrew Purves said it first). "Oh Jerusalem, that I might gather you up, like a hen does its chicks" is not the same as saying, "I am a hen."

I suspect, "This is my body, this is my blood" is not a metaphor. How it is that, is another matter for discussion.

I think the one who created by word, is quite competent to reveal himself in the appropriate language. It is up to us to be sure we don't muck around with that revelation, by coming up with inadequate metaphors posing as equivalent speech.

Plus the Diana @ Ephesus water fountain is just downright disturbing, on oh so many levels.

Noel said...

Hasn't anyone noticed that the image of the lactating breast presents a body part severed from the rest of the body? An objectified, de-personalized gland-bag is in an of itself crude and pornographic, specifically because of its separation from personhood.

There are just so many things wrong with this at so many levels it's hard to write anything at all.

The graphic of Artemis is perfect.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

There is lots of medieval art that depicts Mary, and sometimes baby Jesus squirting his mother's breast milk into the mouths of saintly priests.

I've always thought that was kinda weird.

But at one time it was a popular theme in Christianity.

Viola Larson said...

You need to leave your ful name, city and state to post here. That is a bit weird, I think it has to do with Mary's obedience to God's will.

But the cross has always been the main symbol of Christians. See the book, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts--From the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance by Richard Viladesau

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

I am not sure I would go with "popular theme" there Anonymous. The medieval church did a lot of things the Council of Trent and later councils anathematized.

But more to the point I find it increasingly sad that "scholarship" has declined so far as to defy simple reason and logic. At least when I read heretics like Marcion and Arius or even Schleiermacher there is some meat there to chew on.


Benjamin P. Glaser
Sarver, PA

Mary E said...


I wanted to thank you for adding your sources at the end of your blog postings.

I had met Anna Case-Winters while she was adending Vanderbilt. Her husband Mike was the Associate Pastor at my church. They moved after she got her doctorate. With your information you gave I hope to be able to contact them.

Thanks again

Mary Eidson