21 December 2007

Good news about the Good News

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts
Joel Green and Mark Baker
InterVarsity Press, 2000

What is scandalous about the cross of Jesus and why do Christians need to recover it? According to the authors, the cross is scandalous insofar as it turns all the categories of the world--failure and success, master and servant, sin and redemption--upside down. Not only are Jesus' disciples in the Gospel of Luke confounded by the apparent failure of his mission (i.e., dying on a cross rather than leading Israel as newly anointed Davidic king), but also the entire project of salvation involves God becoming human and DYING out of his love for humanity. Contemporary mainstream American Christianity, with its self-assured and monochromatic emphasis on individual salvation through God's redemptive violence, too often misses the subversive and countercultural dimensions of the scandalous cross. In this powerful examination of the models and meanings of the cross in Christian history and theology, Green and Baker provide an antidote to this monochromatic gospel by revealing the ambiguity of the cross and challenging the reader's preconceived notions about what the New Testament itself says about salvation in Christ.

For the earliest followers of Jesus, his death "on a Roman cross was an event that lacked within itself a self-evident, unambiguous interpretation" (11). In fact, according to the authors, while the earliest Christians affirmed the centrality of Christ's death on the cross to their salvation, they didn't seem to worry too much about how it had its saving effect. The New Testament itself uses a wealth of different metaphors to describe the salvation obtained through the cross--justification, redemption, reconciliation, sacrifice, triumph--and because these different terms with their subtle shades of meaning get elided in the monochrome of penal substitution theology, the authors spend two full chapters examining these metaphors and teasing out their possible nuances in the context of early Christianity.

The diversity of meanings ascribed to the cross isn't limited to the discourses of Christian scripture, either. In the fifth chapter, the authors outline and critique several historical interpretations of the cross, including the Christus Victor model of Irenaeus and Gregory Nyssa, the Satisfaction model of Anselm of Canterbury, the Moral Influence model of Peter Abelard, and the contemporary model of penal substitution. (This chapter alone is with the price of the book.) In chapters six, seven, and eight, the authors examine the significance of the cross in other, non-Western cultures, revealing the diversity within contemporary global Christianity and using these cross-cultural perspectives to illuminate blind spots in American penal atonement theology.

The authors' efforts in this book are not mere intellectual exercises, either. As the authors repeatedly point out, the cross of Christ grounds the gospels in this world as much as in the next, because it was abusive political power and the desire to protect privilege that lead the Jewish and Roman authorities to execute an innocent man. The ambiguous, scandalous cross challenges all of our received notions about the status quo, and addresses contemporary social issues like racism, social justice, extremes of wealth and poverty, environmental degradation, and our very relationship to the rest of the world. The penal substitution atonement, with its overemphasis on the individual and her sinfulness, omits any critique of our cultural norms and institutions as unnecessary to Christian discipleship. "Given the diversity of witness to the saving significance of the cross in the New Testament, should we not look with caution, even dismay, when we see the atonement articulated in terms of one model only, and especially when that model coheres so fully with the emphasis on autonomous individualism characteristic of so much of the modern middle class in the West" (213). The authors provide ample reason for us to view the contemporary Christian theological scene with dismay, but they also afford the reader many opportunities to look at the Good New anew. And that is definitely good news.

(This review was originally written on March 14, 2007.)

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