Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice: A Feminist-Inspired Reappraisal

By Tanner, Kathryn | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice: A Feminist-Inspired Reappraisal


Tanner, Kathryn, Anglican Theological Review


Serious attention to the incarnation enables one to revise traditional descriptions and explanations of the saving significance of the cross so as to do justice to all the criticisms that white feminist and womanist theologians level against classical atonement theories.1 This is among the more controversial and radical claims to be found in my recent brief systematic theology, Jesus, Humanity, and the THmty.2 I expand upon the argument now, and show how it provides a nuanced and subtle reworking of classical images for the cross-the primary test case for my purposes here being images of sacrifice.

Incarnation and Atonement

Reflecting to some extent theological differences about the nature of sin and salvation as well as the complexity of the event itself on a Christian understanding of it (that is, this event involves both God and humanity in Jesus' person, and both Jesus' sinless humanity and the acts of sinners against him), descriptions and accounts of what is happening on the cross are notoriously legion among the followers of Jesus, beginning at least with the New Testament. The cross is the final expression of Gods wrathful condemnation of sin, the place where sin, and the suffering and death it entails, are borne by Christ and put to death, destroyed. The cross is the ultimate expression of Gods loving choice to be with sinners, in all the sufferings ol a spiritual and physical soil that burden human life in its sinful condition. The cross is the final act of divine humiliation, or the interTrinitarian act whereby the second person of the Trinity is abandoned by the first, in a divine self-emptying that makes room for a world of pain, sin, and death within the very life of God. Tt is the cultic sacrifice to end all sacrifices. It is the agonizing birth of the new creation to be revealed in the resurrection of the dead and in the new life of those dedicated as Christ was to Gods cause. On the cross we see the final form of perfect obedience to Gods will, and a man laying down his life for his friends. We see our own sin: the culminating rejection of Christ's mission of love as that takes shape in the execution of a religious and political subversive at the hands of imperial power.

As everyone knows, these multiple efforts to describe what is going on when Jesus is crucified are distilled over the centuries into distinct models of the atonement, each developing more thoroughly particular aspects of these complex descriptions and usually offering in the process some explanation for the saving significance of the cross. Thus, the moral example or moral influence model of the cross (stemming from Abelard) stresses the way Jesus' dying for us is the perfect manifestation in human form of God s self-sacrificial, condescending love, a helpful example for our imitation or morally powerful influence enkindling in us a similar love. According to the Chrisfus Victor model, God is engaged on the cross in a decisive battle with the forces of sin and death, overcoming the devil for our human good. Restoring the beauty and order of the world lost by our dishonoring of God, Jesus, on Anselm s vicarious satisfaction model, offers up to death his own sinless life in honor of God, thereby rendering the satisfaction that humans owe to God but in a divine way that their dishonoring of God demands and merely human lives are incapable of providing. On the penal substitution model, typical of the Reformation but found already as early as Athanasius, Jesus on the cross, through his perfect obedience and/or by suffering the punishment due violators of the law, fulfills the laws terms and exempts human sinners from penalties otherwise owed. On the happy exchange model associated with Luther, Christ takes on our sins and puts them to death on the cross while we put on Christ's righteousness through our faith and in that way find acceptance before God.

These multiple models, in all their disconcerting diversity and apparent conflict, spur efforts to construct typologies of their essential differences and establish criteria for their evaluation. …

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