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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

"The crucified Christ is a terrible sight, and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain" * Such are the honest words of D T Suzuki, a Buddhist writer expressing his revulsion at the Christian "symbol of crucifixion".

No one could reasonably disagree with the first part of that sentence. If we in the West don't experience any particular emotional reaction to the sight of a crucifix, it is only because we've grown overfamiliar with it. I wish we hadn't. But what about the second part? Isn't there something pathological about celebrating a man's brutal, torturous execution? Don't Christians have an unhealthy fascination with blood and gore? Well, perhaps some do. But before you conclude that that's all there is to it, consider the story behind Good Friday. It is natural to ask why God, assuming he exists, doesn't just come down and sort everything out -- put an end to all suffering, violence, injustice and so on. The Christian answer to this question is radical, and not altogether flattering: God did come down. God came down in human form and met us where we were. And when he did, we murdered him. The Good Friday narrative has at times, with tragic consequences, been interpreted as indicting a specific group of people. This is a profound misunderstanding, as should be obvious to anyone who reads the story without an agenda. The particular society that puts Christ to death is an archetype of all human societies, and each of its main parts is held responsible. The State knowingly executes an innocent, on grounds of expediency. The clergy lies and schemes in order to condemn a man who threatens its authority. And the common folk, the 'average joes', bay for the blood of the one they'd worshiped just a week before. Even his closest friends abandon him, betraying him for money or denying that they ever knew him. The universality is inescapable, the verdict unambiguous: there is something rotten, not just in the state of Denmark, but in the state of humanity. To stare at the cross is to look into a mirror of the soul -- small wonder that we do not like what we see. It makes a mockery of our endless litany of excuses and protestations: 'But I'm not that bad! Not like them! I'm nice to others! I'm devout! I'm tolerant! I'm a victim, not a perpetrator!' And it has no patience for Suzuki's more sophisticated response: "There is from the beginning no self to crucify." There can be no sin without a sinner, or any self to sin against. A comforting thought, no doubt. But a false hope, if the message of Good Friday is to be believed. The point of celebrating Good Friday, then, is not to obsess over the details of a particularly violent episode in human history, least of all to derive any sadistic pleasure from it. It is not meant to be pleasurable. It is about being painfully aware that, no God cannot just come down and eliminate all evil, because that would mean eliminating you and I. That isn't how the story ends, of course. But the joy of Easter Sunday is meaningless without the bitter pill of Good Friday. *From Mysticism Christian and Buddhist, DT Suzuki, 1957

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

"For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 The claim that Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word of God, offered up his life for the salvation of mankind, lies at the very core of the New Testament message. In the Ancient Jewish mind, our predicament is that we are estranged from God, the supreme Good and source of all flourishing. The Jewish authors of the New Testament came to believe that the much-needed reconciliation with God -- what theological parlance refers to as atonement -- was achieved through the life, suffering and ultimate death of Jesus the Messiah. How this is meant to work out has always been a matter of some controversy for Christians. Different 'theories of the atonement' have been proposed through the centuries, with varying degrees of success. It has recently dawned on me that contemporary Christians, in their thinking and speaking about the atonement, unknowingly fluctuate between two distinct theories thereof: penal substitution theory on one hand, and satisfaction theory on the other. Let us briefly go through each in turn. Penal substitution theory starts with the assumption that humanity's turning away from God is deserving of a just and severe condemnation. God, in his infinite mercy, longs to forgive and reconcile humanity to himself. But in his infinite righteousness, he cannot let this great sin go unpunished. This inner tension within God's character is resolved through the cross, on which Christ bears the required condemnation in our stead, thereby becoming our substitute. As some Christians like to put it, God, rather than meting out punishment onto us, took the punishment onto himself, out of love. When Christians speak of Jesus 'taking the punishment for our sins' or 'bearing the wrath of God', they are (consciously or not) drawing from the resources of penal substitution theory. This reliance comes out most clearly when they draw an analogy with a judge who sentences a criminal, before paying the penalty himself. The fully-developed penal substitution model seems to have originated with the Protestant Reformers, though I'm told that there are antecedents in Augustine. For a more recent, classic defense of the theory, see John Stott's The Cross of Christ.

Satisfaction theory is subtly different. Here again, humanity's collective turning away from God is the theory's starting point. But here, the focus is not on punishment, but on repentance. It is taken for granted that the appropriate response to serious personal sin is an attitude of repentance, which involves both deep regret and a sincere 'turning around' of one's life towards the good. Unfortunately, given our condition, any repentance we try to offer will be woefully inadequate. Thankfully, Christ, by living a life of sheer sacrificial love for God and human beings, carried out the perfect repentance that we couldn't. He repented on our behalf, thereby achieving atonement. When Christians speak of Jesus 'paying our debt, which we couldn't pay', thereby releasing us from such a debt, they are (consciously or not) drawing from the resources of satisfaction theory. Notice that, as with penal substitution, Christ becomes our 'substitute' in some sense. But he does not become our penal substitute, since he does not take on the penalty that our estrangement from God deserves. Rather, he takes on the repentance that we owe, but cannot give. The satisfaction models seems to have been preferred by medieval theologians, most notably Anselm and Aquinas. For a more recent (and very illuminating) defense, see Richard Swinburne's Responsibility and Atonement.

I have mentioned analogies and manners of speaking which Christians use to explain the atonement, and which, as we have seen, draw on either of penal substitution or satisfaction theory. What I find very interesting is that, often, the same individual Christian will draw on both models at the same time, probably without realizing it. Here's a fun exercise: try asking a Christian to explain the atonement. If she speaks of Christ taking on the 'punishment' that we deserve, she is relying on the penal substitution model. If she speaks of Christ as paying our 'debt', she is likely relying on the satisfaction model. In my experience, many Christians are happy to use both characterizations simultaneously.

To some extent, this is a problem. While one may perhaps accept some elements of each theory, they are not fully compatible. I don't think Christ can both be the willing recipient of the condemnation we deserve, and the author of the repentance we couldn't achieve. These two pictures are very different. Even so, one could try to accept both, while ascribing primacy to the one of them. One way to do this would be to consider one of the models as a literally true (though, as is necessarily the case in theology, incomplete) representation of the atonement, and the other as a useful metaphor. This is the approach I take. I believe that the satisfaction model should have primacy over the penal substitution model. More precisely, I believe that it is literally true that Christ is the author of the repentance we couldn't achieve (this obviously shouldn't be taken to mean that the theory is flawless or complete). In contrast, in my view, Christ took on the punishment we deserved only in a metaphorical sense. Strictly speaking, he did not, he was not condemned in our place. But he certainly did pay the cost of our alienation from God, and this involved great suffering. In that sense, he was 'punished' for what humanity did, though this is a metaphorical sense of the term 'punished'. I will finish with some indications of why, in my opinion, the satisfaction model is the more biblically plausible candidate as an account of the atonement:

1. It demonstrates a better understanding of the Old Testament sacrificial system: time and time again, the New Testament authors liken Christ to a 'sacrificial lamb', referring to the Ancient Jewish practice of sacrificing animals for the purposes of atonement. Hence, for penal substitution theorists, the significance of such sacrifices is that the animal is punished in stead of the offender, fulfilling the demands of justice. But this interpretation seems inaccurate, since, in the sacrificial system, flour could be offered as a means of atonement (Lev 5.11). Surely, the Ancient Jews did not think that the flour was being condemned in our stead! It seems more reasonable to say that the offering of a sacrificial gift was a way of expressing repentance. But if that's right, then the NT authors' characterization of Jesus as a 'sacrificial lamb' fits much better with the satisfaction model, in which Christ's offering of his very life achieves the repentance we couldn't achieve. 2. It explains the relevance of Jesus' life, rather than simply his death, to atonement: it is very important to the NT authors that Jesus lived a morally excellent life, being a 'lamb without blemish' (Heb 9:14, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Pet 1:19). This is easily explained in the satisfaction model: Christ's entire life, from the moment he was born to his dying breath, was a life of unparalleled love and grace, and hence a supreme act of repentance, on our behalf. Had it instead been a life of selfishness, it would obviously have fallen short of that. In contrast, the penal substitution model doesn't have the resources to explain this. If the problem is that there must be a punishment for sin, it is entirely unclear why a morally excellent individual (as opposed to, say, Donald Trump) must undergo said punishment in order to meet the rigors of justice. 3. Is it really the same punishment? The New Testament teaches that the punishment of the unrepentant is " eternal destruction, [being] separated from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess 1:9). Penal substitution theorists argue that Christ experienced this while nailed to the cross, which, to them, explains his cry of despair, " My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46). The obvious problem here is that if Christ was indeed separated from God at that moment, this separation came to an end. In that case, how he could have taken our punishment is hardly intelligible.

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"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"

The opening words of John's Gospel are perplexing. The 'Word', we are told, is somehow 'with God' and 'is God'. The evangelist goes on to say that the Word "became flesh and made his dwelling among us", a verse crucial to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus Christ is the 'Word', who both 'is God' and 'is with God'. It would be tempting to interpret these claims metaphorically: perhaps Jesus is God's 'Word' in the sense of being the perfect expression of God's will, or of God's character. Certainly, other New Testament passages have that vibe (Col. 1:15). But the Johannine prologue seems to be saying something stronger than that. The Word, we are told, was "with God in the beginning", and " through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made". Hence, Jesus the Word preexists his incarnation, and even the creation of the world. Indeed, he is the means by which the world was created. As is well known, the evangelist is most likely drawing on the Hellenistic philosophical concept of logos, which English translations render as 'Word'. The logos, for Stoic and Platonist philosophers, was usually a kind of supreme divine spirit which sustains the order and existence of the natural world. Jewish thinkers commonly identified this logos with what the Hebrew Bible calls wisdom ( 'hokma' , Prov. 8) or word ('dabar'), as in the following verse from the Psalms:

"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host." (Ps. 33:6) The word is the means by which God brings the world into existence, and we have seen that this is what John the evangelist has in mind. Crucially, the Word is an attribute of God -- the fact that the texts also call it 'wisdom' brings that out clearly. And yet, for the evangelist, the Word is also a divine person, who took flesh and walked among us. The question I wish to address here is, how is it possible for a person, Jesus, to be identical to a divine attribute, the Word? This is intuitively very odd. We don't normally think of attributes as things in their own right, but rather as features or aspects of things, like the color or solidity of my coffee mug. But Jesus the person clearly is a thing in its own right. To use the old philosophical jargon, we distinguish substances, which are things in their own right, and the attributes that such substances may have.

I think the answer to our question lies in a distinction between two different ways of thinking about the relationship between objects / substances and their attributes. I'm referring to what philosophers have called relational and constituent ontology (e.g. Wolterstoff 1991). Let us look at each of these in turn.

On a relational ontology, an object and its attributes are linked by a relation that may be called 'exemplification', 'participation' or 'instantiation' (these terms are largely interchangeable). Importantly, the attributes are conceived as being external to the object that exemplifies them. The attributes do not exist 'in' the objects that have them, rather, they exist in some abstract realm, a Platonic 'realm of forms'. The exemplification relation acts as a kind of bridge between the abstract attribute and the concrete object that has it. It should be clear that, given a relational ontology, the identification of Jesus with the Word is logically impossible, or at best utterly unintelligible. The person, Jesus, is a concrete thing that could be touched and directly perceived by those around him. But the Word, on a (purely) relational ontology, is an abstract thing. Surely it is impossible in principle for a concrete object to be identical to an abstract thing. The problem remains even if we take the traditional interpretation of the Platonic realm of forms as God's intellect. For if attributes are in fact ideas or concepts in the divine mind, then it would follow that the Word is an idea or concept in the divine mind. But the flesh-and-blood person, Jesus, is necessarily not an idea or concept. Hence, here again, it seems in principle impossible for Jesus to be the Word. On a constituent ontology, in contrast, the attributes of an object are constituents of the object. Attributes are said to inhere in the objects that have them. They are part of what 'makes up' the object -- or indeed, all that makes up the object, if one subscribes to 'bundle-of-properties'-type views. In some constituent ontologies, attributes are simply identified with the object's parts.

Wolterstorff notes that medieval (Christian) philosophers were themselves constituent ontologists, which is what allowed them to say, among other things, that God is his nature, i.e. his attributes taken together, rather than simply 'having' his nature. The identification of Jesus with the Word seems much less problematic given a constituent ontology. Presumably, if attributes are constituents of concrete objects, then they are (or can be) themselves concrete. Hence, identifying Jesus with the Word does not compel us to say that Jesus both is and isn't a concrete thing. Granted, the notion that one of an object's constituents could be a person, a conscious self, is still mysterious, even if the constituent isn't some otherworldly abstractum. But consider panpsychism, a metaphysical theory associated with Leibniz, and still held by some philosophers today. Panpsychists hold that fundamental entities, e.g. subatomic particles, are conscious. Arguably, this implies that such particles are conscious selves, albeit very tiny ones. If that's right, then, on panpsychism, my most basic constituents (insofar as I am ultimately constituted of subatomic particles) are conscious selves. This is would no doubt be very bizarre. But I see no reason to believe that it is in principle impossible, in the way that married bachelors, or indeed abstract persons, are impossible. I conclude that, on a constituent ontology, the identification of Jesus with the Word, while mysterious, is not in principle impossible. Some concluding observations If we take the constituent ontologist's interpretation of Jesus' identity with the Word, then, insofar as the Word is an attribute of God, and that attributes are constituents of the things that have them, it follows that Jesus the Word is a constituent of God -- more elegantly, an element of God's being. Or, to paraphrase New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, Jesus is 'included within the divine identity'. This allows us to deal with some of the theological paradoxes in the New Testament. Jesus, qua Word, is said by John the evangelist to be 'God', as we have seen. But the texts also speak of Jesus having a God, addressing God, being vindicated by God, and so on. Clearly, the relation between Jesus and God cannot be one of numerical identity, such as in 'Batman is Bruce Wayne'. What to make then, of John's claim that Jesus 'is' God? Jesus the Word is not strictly (i.e. numerically) identical to God, but is nevertheless inseparable from God, since he is an element of God's being. He is, in that sense, well and truly divine.

This, I think, sheds some light on the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Bauckham, R. (2002). God crucified. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans. Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1991). Divine simplicity. Philosophical Perspectives 5:531-552.

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