Paul and the Death of Jesus

Article excerpt

Paul uses a rich variety of metaphors to express the significance of Jesus ' death. Far from giving permission to those in power to silence the powerless, the cross becomes the paradigm of self-sacrificing service for the whole community of faith.

IN 1970 INTERPRETATION devoted an issue to "The Significance of the Death of Jesus." The volume included the English translation of the report of the Theological Committee of the Evangelische Kirche der Union in Germany on "How the Death of Jesus Is to be Understood" and four articles (by Ernst Kisemann, Hans Conzelmann, Ernst Haenchen, and Walter Kreck) written as a part of the committee's work.1 Behind the study lay a crisis in the German church about the nature of preaching. Pastors and church members sensed confusion about matters that lay at the heart of the faith-the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Was his death a unique event in which the crucified Jesus vicariously bore the divine judgment against human sin? What is one to make of the metaphors used in the New Testament to depict the significance of Jesus' death? Are they disposable, replaceable? Is Jesus the object of faith or is he primarily a model for how Christians are to live?

Similarly, questions arise in the North American context today about the meaning of Jesus' death, though under very different circumstances and for different reasons. Does the atonement condone human violence? Does God's "gift" of the Son for humanity's sin set a model for all sorts of abusive behavior? Does Paul glorify suffering? Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker speak for some, though not all, feminists when they write,

Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in the modern society when the predominant image of the culture is of "divine child abuse"-God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must itself be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb.2

In the light of such critiques, Interpretation tackles a critical matter in devoting another issue to "Atonement and Scripture." Whereas the debate in the German church in the 1960s revolved around the relative importance of the historicity of Jesus' death and resurrection and the gap in interpretation between academy and church, the discussion today arises from a social and cultural climate that infuses both town and gown and raises afresh Anselm's ancient question Cur Deus Homo? In the conclusion of the article, I shall return to at least one aspect of this contemporary critique.

But first, my assignment is to visit the letters of Paul.3 What is initially surprising is that Paul never directly addresses atonement4 as an issue in and of itself. No doubt this is because it never arose as a contested matter in the Pauline communities. To be sure, it is integral to the gospel he preached and becomes a critical piece of the polemical argument he made in various contexts. There is no indication, however, that groups within the congregations under Paul's care held an inadequate or misguided view of the atonement that he in some way challenged (as, for example, he challenged the Corinthians' understanding of the resurrection of the dead in 1 Cor 15). Instead, Paul most often uses the theme of God's righting human wrongs through the death of Jesus in the service of other issues, such as the place of non-Jews in the community of faith.

Moreover, the death of Jesus is mentioned in the letters in connection with purposes other than atonement-for example, to establish a new epistemology, to critique the misuse of power, and to identify the character of the Christian life. Thus I will give primary attention to the broader theme of Jesus' death in the Pauline letters. …