Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Cross as Judgment

In the two quotes on the heading of this blog, we see St. Augustine expressing the common faith of the early church in the doctrine of Divine judgment. The end of the second article of the Apostles' Creed says: "He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead."

In the first quote, St. Augustine sees the cross as a judgment seat from which Christ begins (and foreshadows) his work of dividing the sheep and the goats to his right and and to his left respectively. In the second, St. Augustine speaks of the future bodily second coming of Christ when he will judge all men in human form. In the same passage just prior to this quote, St. Augustine notes that, even though the Father will judge, He will judge by the coming of the Son and quotes John 5:22, which says that the Father "Judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son."

In modern, liberal interpretations of the cross I note that quite often the element of judgment is muted or elided. The current debate within Evangelical circles arising from the attempts of some to dismiss the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement as sub-Christian is a sign that liberal theology is becoming more congenial to some Evangelicals than it used to be. I do not think that the atonement can be reduced to nothing but the penal substitutionary theory, as if the Christus Victor and exemplarist theories were unimportant to a full-orbed understanding of the meaning of Christ's death. I do, in fact, see something true in all the major theories of the atonement. But I do not think that one can simply throw out the idea of Christ bearing our sins as our atoning sacrifice and the wrath of God falling on Him instead of on us and still do justice to the New Testament as a whole. Christ is the "Judge Judged in Our Place" as Barth famously put it. (CD IV/1, 211).

When I wrote The Politics of the Cross: the Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder, I did not interpret Yoder as denying the fact of God's judgment of sin either on the cross or in the future, although many others do interpret Yoder in such a way as to make God completely passive in simply bearing sin Himself, but not judging sin actively, and in suffering the wrath of the powers but not being wrathful against "the godlessness and wickedness of men." (Rom. 1:18) The suffering love God endured in the person of the God-Man on the cross is sometimes seen as the sum and substance of God's redemptive action in history and as the model for us to adopt as nonviolent followers of Jesus.

But I cannot accept a definition of Christian love as essentially, or exclusively, passive suffering; I think it is necessary to see God's love as active judgment as well as passive suffering. In the cross we are confronted with a mystery of Divine love and Divine wrath coming together in such a way that God bears the sins of the world in Himself, that is, in the person of the God-Man. Modern liberal theology takes the tension out of this mystery and resolves the meaning of the cross into a rationally comprehensible principle of nonviolence. Many theologians in the Anabaptist tradition see this liberal emphasis as a logical expression of their theological tradition. I do not.

As a Baptist, I have one foot in the Anabaptist tradition and the other in the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church out of which the English Baptists came. So perhaps it is not up to me to say what the logical culmination of the continental Anabaptist tradition is or is not. But let me say this quite clearly: if the logical development of the Anabaptist tradition is the bland theology of inclusion and acceptance as currently taught in liberal Protestantism, then I cannot recognize that tradition as my own. And if I am wrong about the proper interpretation of John Howard Yoder's thought (as I may well be, after all,) then I cannot recognize the Anabaptist/Liberal Yoder as a good teacher or myself as his follower.

This is why I have posted these quotes from St. Augustine on the header of this blog. I believe in a christologically-determined politics, a politics of the cross, but I do not believe that such a politics is mere passivity and the avoidance of violence through the adoption of a posture of withdrawal from the world. I don't believe Yoder reduced Chrisitian social witness to mere passivity and the avoidance of violence either; though that is a debate that is on-going. But the kind of christological politics (or politics of the cross) that I think is faithful to the complete biblical revelation of Jesus Christ and the tradition of the Church catholic is a politics that recognizes that in the cross God was in Christ both saving and judging the world simultaneously. And the mission of the Church involves bearing a witness to both of these aspects of the cross. Preaching Jesus is not the same thing as preaching Ghandi.


Grant said...

Craig, great to see that you are still on line. Is this a continuation of your previous blog or are you seeking a new emphasis?

I agree that a non-passive perspective makes it difficult to adopt any uncritical accommodation of part or all of the host culture. Could it be that an undue stress on non-violence may result in losing sight of the Christ who calls us to be peacemakers, and instead make non-violence an idol. After all, the peacemakers of Matthew 5 are those who actively seek peace, not those who passively eschew violence.

If I read Yoder correctly, he was at pains to draw the reader's attention to spiritual conflict with the powers and principalities. These are still active after the Cross and resurrection and still subject to God's judgment. The followers of Christ are drawn into this conflict. Could this mean that passivity is tantamount surrender to evil?

Craig Carter said...

Yes, I'm intending to make this new/old blog a different emphasis. Can Yoder and Augustine be combined or are they mutually exclusive alternative? Can Yoder's thought be understood as part of the Church catholic? Or is it inevitably sectarian? Or is it even inevitably liberal?

The possibility that nonviolence becomes an idol is a very real one. My next post will deal with that possibility.