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

Article excerpt

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. The models difier, ior example, on who is responsible for the crucifixion-the devil, human beings, God, or Jesus as the one consenting to his death and going willingly to it. On who or what is changed via the cross: God (Gods wrath changed to mercy); or us (our hate for God changed to love, our fear before Gods wrath changed to trust); or the whole situation (namely, through the cross a new sort of relationship is set up between God and human beings). The models differ on the one effecting change: God is the one through whom the change is wrought; or we primarily effect the change, in the responses to which the cross calls forth, or in following the way of obedience that Jesus models for us on the cross. Christ effects the change primarily through the powers of his humanity (say, insofar as he is obedient), or through his divinity (say, in case God is battling the devil on the cross for lights of jurisdiction over us). The models differ on whether the cross is an interruption, a changing of course, in God's relations with us or part of a continuous effort, say, to win us back from the devil or express the loving character of God s relations with us in a way that will finally get through to us. And so on.

The criteria for evaluation have become somewhat standard by this point in the history of theological argument over the atonement and I would understand feminist and womanist criteria as being very much in line with them. One consideration, certainly, is the unappealing or one-sided character of God that many of the models imply. God in the moral example or influence model might seem a sentimental patsy, without righteous anger or horrified concern for the destructive and wayward effects of sin on human life. On the vicarious satisfaction model, God appears more concerned about slights to God's own dignity than the sufferings of a death-filled world. Here and in the penal substitution model, God seems straitjacketed in the expression of loving concern by a rigid law or penal code of Gods own construction. In many cases, one suspects God derives pleasure or satisfaction from death and suffering. Feminist worries about the cross as a model for abuse are perfectly continuous with the last concern, which hardly seems to me objectionably novel or outlandish in its basic form.

The outdated character of the mechanisms of atonement on many of the models is a question too: the loss, for example, of the kind of honor code among superiors and subordinates and penitential frame that gave Anselm's theory its cogency; the modem sense (certainly since the Enlightenment) that an injustice would be done if another were punished or obedient to the law in one s place. Again, the womanist concern that classical atonement theories trade on ideas that condone the surrogate status of black women-their having to do the dirty work for whites-and play down the now so obvious injustices of that surrogacy, seem an unproblematic example of the last well-justified worry.

Another major question is the degree to which these various models leave other aspects of the gospel story, the other major dimensions of Jesus life according to Christian understanding, unexplored or unimportant. The moral influence and vicarious satisfaction models, for example, slight the importance of the resurrection. The incarnation easily drops out of view on the penal substitution model: someone has to die or be obedient since those are the terms of the law, but presumably the merely human quality of Jesus' acts is sufficient to meet the terms of any original contract or covenant that God sets up with us. The public ministry of Jesus is not obviously important on any of the models and it is this point, in particular, that feminist and womanist theologians argue especially forcefully.

Feminist and womanist theologians remind us that the death of Jesus must be brought into connection with the public ministry without slighting the saving import in its own right of that ministry. One makes a connection oi the appropriate sort, feminist and womanist theologians tell us, if one says that Jesus' ministry is what gave rise to the opposition that brought about his death, or if one takes the message of the cross to be that one should stay the course in one's dedication to the mission of God despite the costs in suffering and death to oneself that are likely in a world marked by sin. These connections between Jesus' death and his ministry turn one's attention away from any exclusive focus on Jesus' death, to the character of the mission-for example, to the healing nature of Jesus' interactions with others, his acceptance oi sinners among his close associates, and practices of inclusive table fellowship. Obedience to the mission, as that is pointedly displayed on the cross, is all well and good but the more important point is what the mission is to which Jesus' life is dedicated. It is true that obedience unto death is a marker of supreme dedication, but death itself is an impediment to the mission and not its positive culmination in any obvious way. If the mission of God continues, that is despite Jesus' death and not thanks to it. Rejection and death stand in the way of the mission and must be overcome in a resurrected life that moves through and beyond death. Insofar as the cross is simply the culminating indicator of the rejection of Jesus' mission in a world of sin, it would presumably have been better-a sign of the kingdom come-if the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus had never happened. The new covenant or community of God that Jesus struggles to bring into existence would certainly not include them.

Feminist and womanist theologians in this way keep the fact of human sin, and with it the whole religious and political sides of the human situation that brought about Jesus' death, from being eclipsed, as they tend to be in accounts of the atonement where the focus is on God bringing Jesus to his death, or on Jesus' death as necessary to satisfy divine requirements. Identified as the consequences of human rejection and sin, the horror of the events on the cross stand out in an unmitigated way: death and suffering, being an innocent victim, in and of themselves have nothing good about them; there is nothing saving about them as such. Once again, I think that this stress on the sinful horrors of the cross, on the need to be mindful of the fact that this is a brutal bloody death suited exclusively to a world of sin, is fully compatible with quite traditional and long-standing criteria for the evaluation of atonement theories (especially within Reformation circles).

Of course, a feminist and womanist focus on Jesus' ministry can itself become one-sided, and therefore susceptible of critique on the grounds of some of the same general criteria already mentioned. Despite the obviously climactic character of Jesus' passion in the gospel narratives of Jesus' life and the focus on it in Pauline writings especially, the cross can fall out of consideration altogether except as something simply negative. The usual recourse of feminist and womanist theologians is to dismiss the idea that there is anything saving going on in the crucifixion. The account of religious and political opposition to Sophias prophets, among whom Jesus is numbered, can eclipse any further theological accounting for how Jesus works to save despite it-that is, any further theological accounting of how Jesus saves in and through the extreme opposition that his mission faced and in contradiction to it.

I propose an incamational model of atonement that would supplement feminist and womanist theologies on this score, thereby deflecting criticism of them while resurrecting, so to speak, a nearly forgotten form of classical atonement theory. Following Thomas Torrance, one must say: "Union with God in and through Jesus Christ who is one and the same being with God belongs to the inner heart of the atonement."3 Incarnation becomes the primary mechanism of atonement, replacing, I will suggest, the vicarious satisfaction or penal substitution models with their obvious problems from both feminist and non-feminist points of view. Incarnation is, moreover, the basic mechanism of atonement underlying the Christus Victor and happy exchange models.

The happy exchange model is easily combined, as it is in Luther and Galvin, with a penal substitution view of the mechanism of atonement: sin needs to be put to death for justice to be done and Jesus does so on the cross by bearing our sins, putting them on. The primary mechanism of atonement on the happy exchange model would in that case be the legal one of the penal substitution model: the requirements of the law are met on the cross.

Christus Victor is not a model at all in that it fails, per se, to address the mechanism of atonement. Christ is battling the forces of evil and sin on the cross but how is the battle won? Gustaf Aulen, who more than anyone is responsible for the modern currency of this classical idea, associates it with ransom theories (Gods buying back humans from enslavement under sin and death), even with the bait-and-hook account of theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa.4 (Absent the fishing analogy, the latter idea is that death takes Jesus as if he were a sinner whom death can rightfully claim; death thereby oversteps its lawful bounds and loses its rights to us.) But the historical currency of these models of the atonement is even more restricted than the penitential and feudal ones underlying Anselms.

Aulen is aware that the Christus Victor model has a connection with an account of the incarnation, but he views the latter as merely a necessary prerequisite for the fight to be engaged: God has to enter into the sphere of sin and death, by becoming human, in order to fight sin and death. If the fight culminates on the cross, there is a continuity to the struggle beginning with the incarnation in which the fight is engaged, across Jesus' life of struggle, to the climax of that struggle in all its intensity on the cross, and through it to the victory of resurrection.

Aulen does not see, however, that the incarnation is the very means by which the fight is waged and won. This claim is fundamental nonetheless to the early church theologians to whom he appeals. all of them view the incarnation, understood as the Word's assumption of humanity-the Words uniting of humanity to itself in such a way as to make humanity its own-as the key to the salvation of humanity. It is in virtue of the incarnation that humanity is saved-first the humanity of Christ himself and then through him that of every other human being, one with him. The humanity of Christ (and united with Christ our humanity) is purified, healed, and elevated-saved from sin and its effects (anxiety, fear, conflict, and death)-as a consequence of the very incarnation through which the life-giving powers of Gods own nature are brought to bear on human life in the predicament of sin. Humanity is taken to the Word in the incarnation in order to receive from the Word what saves it.

The connection of incarnation with the happy exchange model becomes in this way easy to see so that the happy exchange models association with the penal substitution model is broken. The happy exchange model of the atonement is just a case of the saving communication of idioms that the incarnation brings about. As a result of the incarnation, the characteristics of human life become the (alien) properties of the Word, and thereby the properties of the Word (its holiness, its life-enhancing powers) become the (alien) properties of humanity in a way that saves humanity from sin and death.

The saving effects of the incarnation on this classical model are felt throughout Christ's life but no more so than on the cross, where those life-giving powers of the divine nature of Christ are so much needed-remedying the loss of the humanity of Christ's own powers of life as they ebb away in full physical and spiritual torment. The application of these ideas about the saving efficacy of incarnation to what is happening on the cross as to every other aspect of Jesus' life is quite clear in these same early church figures. Thus, Gregory of Nazianzus in his Fourth Theological Oration: the Word in becoming incarnate "bear[s] all me and mine in himself, that in himself he may exhaust the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mists of the earth; and that I may partake of his nature by the blending."5 Again: "So he is called man. . . . that by himself he may sanctify humanity and be as it were a leaven to the whole lump; and by uniting to himself that which was condemned may release it from conde mnation, becoming for all men all things that we are except sin-body, soul, mind, and all through which death reaches,"6 Or Gregory of Nyssa: "Although Christ took our filth upon himself, nevertheless he is not himself defiled by the pollution, but in his own self he cleanses the filth, for it says, the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overpower it." And again in a way that quite explicitly covers the case of the cross, "Although he was made sin and a curse because of us, and took our weaknesses upon himself, yet he did not leave the sin and the curse and the weakness enveloping him unhealed. . . . Whatever is weak in our nature and subject to death was united with his Deity and became what the Deity is."? The incarnation indeed is the underlying mechanism of the bait-and-hook analogy that one associates with Nyssa:

In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might easily be accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with the ravenous Hsh, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of the flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and the light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and Iiie might vanish; tor it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.8

Or most explicitly perhaps in Cyril of Alexandria:

There was no other way lor the nesh to become life-giving, even though by its own nature it is subject to the necessity of corruption, except that it became the very flesh of the Word who gives life to all things. . . . There is nothing astonishing here, for if it is true that fire has converse with materials that in their nature are not hot, and yet renders them hot since it so abundantly introduces to them the inherent energy of its own power, then surely in an even greater degree the Word who is God can introduce the lite-giving power and energy of his own nature into his very own Qesh.9

Understood with reference to the incarnation, atonement returns to its English lexical roots: at-one-ment-a sense of the atonement that now can no longer be limited to the cross. Humanity is at one with the divine in Jesus-on the cross as everywhere else in Jesus' life-and that is what is saving about it.

Keeping this in mind, it readily becomes apparent how an incarnational account of the cross severely undercuts legal or contractual interpretations of the saving mechanism of the cross, typical of the vicarious satisfaction and penal models. If God saves by assuming the life of suffering and death to which Jesus is subjected, there isn't a sufficient externality between the events of the cross and God's response to them to make sense of a forensic analogy. God's saving act does not follow Jesus' obedience-the way a reward follows the doing of good works. God's saving act does not follow his self-sacrificing death-the way release follows the payment of a debt. God's saving action cannot any longer be viewed, in the temporally subsequent sense required by a forensic analogy, as a response-to what Jesus does on the cross, to his obedience, self-sacrifice, or suffering unto death-in accordance with what the law mandates. all ofthat makes God's action to save come too late, too far after the fact. Instead, God is taking saving action from the very first by way of the fact that here these human acts and passions are the Word's own.

Talking of God's saving action in legal or contractual terms is also to misunderstand the causal connection between what happens on the cross and God's action to save. What happens on the cross does not evoke what God does to save, in any strong sense. Those saving acts now to the humanity of Christ in virtue of an already present community with that humanity-the strongest possible community in which what is the Word's becomes humanity's own-a community that holds prior to the meeting of any conditions and which in its intimacy obviates the need to meet them.

It is true that what happens on the cross is a precondition for salvation in some sense- just not in the ways forensic models presume. If the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death, the Word must assume a life like that, become one with it, as Jesus goes in suffering and abjection to the cross. That |esus must be obedient unto death, humiliated on the cross, in order to be exalted, means only that-not that Jesus is exalted, resurrected, as a reward. It is just a way of saying (as Athanasius makes clear in his interpretation of Philippians 2) that the Word must take on humanity as we know it in all its horrors if the powers of the Word are to be translated to that humanity in a saving way.10 If it suggests anything more about Jesus' humiliation as a precondition of Gods saving action, it is that Jesus had to be humiliated on the cross for the sake of salvation the way one has to be sick to go to the doctor, not the way one has to swallow ones pride and make amends in order to be forgiven, let back into another's good graces.

More subtly perhaps, the incamational model of the atonement undercuts the sense of vicariousness that underlies the satisfaction and penal models. The primary meaning of "for us"-"Jesus dies for us"-is benefit rather than legal substitution; Jesus dies to benefit us so that we will no longer have to live as we do m a sin-afflicted, death-ridden world. Jesus, as the Word incarnate, does act on our behalf, step into our place, act its our advocate, and thereby does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But in Jesus the Word makes our cause its own and does what we cannot do, for us, in virtue of the fact of kinship established between the Word and humanity via incarnation, because of the bond with humanity established by the incarnation. This incamational identification rather than Jesus' standing before the law is what makes him our substitute in the prosecution of our cause. Jesus does not represent us, stand in for us, primarily by taking on the position of guilty, death-deserving persons before the law. That, once again, is not what "died for us" necessarily implies.

If the incarnation is so evidently the broad model of salvation incorporating the cross in the early church figures I have mentioned, why is it that reference to the incarnation drops out in modern accounts of the atonement, even among theologians such as Aulen with a special interest in these early figures? One possibility is that the Greek philosophical underpinnings for what is saving about the incarnation have no contemporary currency (the incarnation trades on a Platonic relocation of universal terms such as "humanity"). The incarnation might then fall victim to the Hellenization thesis which Protestant liberalism, following Adolf Harnack, popularized. This would hardly explain, however, why the incarnation is not at least mentioned as an atonement model, among many others that contemporary mores and cultural assumptions render problematic. As my quotations indicate, moreover, the images that do the work in accounts of the saving effects of the incarnation are not of a technical philosophical sort but rather "homey" and commonsensical even to modem ears-darkness overcome by being drawn to the light, wood catching fire when put next to a flame. There is nothing particularly objectionable here, compared to modem worries, say, about the justice of putting innocent people to death, and nothing especially time-bound in its incomprehensibility to contemporary people, as the feudal code of honor underlying the vicarious satisfaction model might now seem to be.

Much more plausible as an explanation for the absence of attention to incarnation is that incarnation is being understood-misunderstood-in ways that makes it hard to see any connection between incarnation and the cross. One such misunderstanding is to see incarnation in a narrow temporally indexed way-that is, as referring simply to Jesus' birth-and therefore separated from the cross by the whole intervening time frame of Jesus' life. But the incarnation refers primarily to the fact that the Word has assumed or united the humanity of Jesus to itself. That assumption of humanity by the Word is of course responsible for the fact that the man Jesus exists at all; it is therefore a way of talking about Jesus' birth. But it is also the fact underlying and making sense of what happens over the whole course of Jesus' existence, from his birth to his death and beyond: this whole human life and death is that of the Word incarnate. On an understanding of incarnation as the underlying precondition for the whole of Jesus' life and death, it makes perfect sense, as one finds in a number of the quotations I cited, to associate the passages of John 1 that introduce the birth of Jesus-the light shines in the darkness, and so on-with the death of Christ. Here too, indeed especially here, one finds that the light has come into the darkness.

To see the connection with the cross one must also not think of the humanity which the Word assumes, as anything other than fallen humanity adversely affected by the consequences of sin. One must not identify it, say, with the pure, prelapsarian humanity favored in medieval accounts of the incarnation. If the humanity assumed by the Word were already in such great shape, then it would have no need of becoming the Word's own in order to be any different. Since the humanity of Jesus in the fullness of his life for others represents humanity as it is to be saved, this model of the incarnation has every reason to stress the awful conditions of human life that the Word makes the Word's own in becoming incarnate. This humanity is humanity suffering from fear and distress, conflict with others, anxiety before death, betrayal and isolation, separation from God-all the qualities of death-infused, sin-corrupted life that require remedy. The cross then typifies the character of human life that the Word becomes incarnate to reverse by making it its own; incarnation does not distract attention from the cross but sees all the struggles of Jesus' life as the Word made flesh in light of it.

Finally, one must not understand the saving consequences of the incarnation to be immediate. If that were the case, humanity would be saved from the first and the cross would have no significance (namely, Jesus would have a resurrected body at his birth without having to move through death to life). If the incarnation were to have its effects immediately, the incarnation becomes a mere alternative to atonement on the cross and not an explanation for what is saving about it; one would be saved by the incarnation and not by anything happening on the cross. Instead, one must say that humanity suffering from the effects of sin is being reworked for its salvation over time, from Jesus' birth up to and through his death. The incarnation remains a constant but its effects are not. Salvation, what the incarnation brings about, takes time, in short; it is a process of temporal, historical proportions, involving struggle with the forces of sin and death, and the sort of changes that any human life, sinful or not, faces.

In order to linderstand this, one must see the humanity that the Word assumes as a historical humanity, one that grows and changes. "The child grew and became strong. . . . Jesus increased in wisdom and in years" (Luke 2:40, 52). And a humanity needing to be changed because of the forces of sin and death afflicting it. As a result, there is in Jesus' life a passover, a genuine way or passage, from corruption to incorruption, from a life suffering from sin to one free from its effects.11 Each moment of Jesus' life as it happens is being brought into connection with the life-giving powers of the Word, and the reworking of each of those features takes time. Jesus is not saved from death, therefore, until he dies and not saved from the awful consequences of his rejection in a sinful world until he suffers them, at which time those aspects of Jesus' human life are taken up by the Word and subject to a process of reworking through the powers of the Word.

The way this incarnational model of the atonement addresses feminist and womanist worries is I hope evident by now. Here is a God who works unswervingly for our good, who puts no value on death and suffering, and no ultimate value on self-sacrifice for the good, a God of gift-giving abundance struggling against the forces of sin and death in the greatest possible solidarity with us-that of incarnation. Contrary to a great deal of feminist and womanist theology, there is something saving about the cross here, but there is nothing saving about suffering, death, or victimhood, in and of themselves. All those cruel and bloody features of the cross, which feminists and womanists are worried atonement theories And positive value in, are here identified in no uncertain terms with the world one needs to be saved from. The mechanism of atonement does not mitigate the horrors of the cross, but highlights them, as what gives salvation by way of incarnation its urgency. Nothing stands in the way, moreover, of a quite realistic appraisal of the religious and political reasons behind Jesus' execution, since these circumstances make all the more evident the sinful, conflictual, and death-dealing world which the incarnation of the Word seeks to heal.

Nor need feminists and womanists worry unduly in this case about the tendency of atonement models to foster one-sided and narrow prescriptions for human action by elevating certain features of the cross to salvific status. Nothing of the human character of Christ's going to the cross, namely, Jesus' steadfast dedication to the cause of God at such great cost to himself, is a condition in any strong sense for what is saving about it. Or, one might say, everything about Jesus' life, which involves intimacy with the human condition for the sake of saving it, is a condition for salvation in a weak sense. Jesus is obedient to the mission of God, and that is a good thing, but that obedience is itself the result of the same saving force of incarnation that accounts for what is saving about the cross. Obedience cannot, moreover, be a matter for isolated preoccupation, in the search for models for our imitation. An incarnational model of atonement insists upon the relationship between the cross and the rest of Jesus' life, since the mechanism of salvation on the cross is at work throughout the whole of Jesus' life. And the effects of this salvific mechanism-its point-are, indeed, much clearer away from the cross than on it-namely, in Jesus' healing ministry to the sick and the outcast, the advent of the new community of God, and Jesus' resurrected life.

Cross and Sacrifice

Along the way, we have been discussing several cases where images commonly used of the atonement are seriously reinterpreted and critically revised on the basis of an incamational model-for example, language of obedience, forensic images, and the idea of Jesus as a "stand in" for us. But I would like to turn in a more concerted way now to images of sacrifice. The model of incarnation throws a whole new light on such imagery especially when the historical complexity of that imagery's associations is better recognised.

Sacrificial imagery in the New Testament is quite complex, reflecting in great part the varied character of Old Testament sacrifices and contemporary temple practice (along with the fact that the governing political context for New Testament writings is a Greco-Roman one, in which sacrifice also plays an important role). If Christians assume there is something saving about Jesus' death, this association with cultic sacrifice is perhaps quite natural: the blood (of animals) is key to establishing and maintaining cultic relations with God, God's presence in the temple. Christ's death therefore comes to be discussed in terms of communion sacrifice: "This is my blood of the new covenant" (Mark 14.24; see also 1 Cor. 10:16, 11:25), a reference perhaps to the sacrifices that Moses performed to seal the covenant (Exod. 24). Christ is the lamb of God, the paschal lamb, slain as a sign of the favor of God that would bring Israel's redemption from Egypt and its establishment as a new people under divine direction and protection (see 1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; 1 Peter 2:9, 3:18). Problems in or interruptions to close relationship with God (moral fault or cultic impurity) are rectified through the blood of cultic sacrifice (see Heb. 9:22). Christ's death on the cross is therefore discussed perhaps most frequently in terms of expiatory sacrificial rites (see, for example, Rom. 3:24-25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10; Rev. 1:5)-those rites for individuals that wipe away conscious sins or cultic impurities, or those for the whole community on a special day of atonement (see the epistle to the Hebrews). Since none of these sacrifices involves the sacrifice of a human being, it perhaps makes sense that there are other references to the Akedah-Isaac's bringing his own son for sacrifice; Isaacs willingness to be sacrificed (Rom. 8:32). There are also references to non-cultic sacrifice of a moral sort. Jesus is like those martyrs for the people under persecution (see 4 Mace.) who lay their own lives of self-sacrificial service before God as a pointed reminder of and appeal to God s steadfast love of God's people. References to the fourth servant song of Isaiah 53 in descriptions of the Last Supper seem to have the same import.

With this understanding of the historical complexities of New Testament references to sacrifice in mind, one can see how many of the standard atonement models distort the understanding of sacrifice that originally grounds its use for describing the cross. Forensic imagery is a case in point. While the animal sacrificed in an expiatory rite may be standing in for the one for whom the sacrifice is offered (the man offering it lays his hands on its head in some sort of act of identification perhaps), there is no legal connotation of the sacrificial act as a satisfaction or penalty.12 The rite is not propitiatory: its point is not to change God's wrath to mercy, but to wipe away fault or impurity in ways that a God already desirous of communion with us institutes.13 Benefits do not come back to the offerer because the conditions of something like a contract have been fulfilled but because the rite trades on God's unbroken faithfulness to a decision to be with those engaged in temple service. Propitiation is not the reason why the rite wipes away sin; no real explanation indeed is offered. God simply wants to reinstate Gods people to full communion with God and this is what God tells Gods people to do in such cases.

It is sometimes maintained that ideas of propitiation or placation according to a kind of legal contract are a Greco-Roman influence: Greek content is being introduced into references to Israelite practices.14 But even in so-called propitiatory ritual acts in a Greek or Roman context-sacrificial rites designed to gain the favor of the gods for the city-the relationship is not specifically contractual. The idea is to maintain good relations, social communion, via gifts; social relations generally, whether among human beings or between human beings and gods, are simply constituted by gifts, back and forth. Votive rites-pledges of future offerings upon receipt of a blessing: "I will do this for you if you do this for me"-only obligate the offerers and not the gods: an offering is obligated in case the gods act for one s benefit but the gods remain free to give or not as they see fit.

A fuller sense of the historical complexities of sacrifice disrupts too any atonement theory that focuses on the death of Christ to the exclusion of attention to the social and political circumstances that surround it. Sacrifice is all about the establishment of communion and exclusion in social terms, and about how community is to be organized.15 Sacrifice is a kind of social mimicking and reconstitution of biological bonds. The way a sacrificial animal is taken apart and those parts redistributed mirror social arrangements; social connections are indeed symbolically constituted through such rites. There is undoubtedly then political import to the way Jesus' death is a sacrifice. The character of that sacrifice might very well be tied to the practices of community formation advocated by Christians, according to Jesus' own model in his ministry. The political import of Christian refusal to participate in the sacrifices of the Roman state is commonly recognized, but the socio-political ramifications of sacrifice need to be brought more centrally into the discussion of what it might mean to say that Jesus' death is itself sacrificial: what forms of exclusion, community, and social organization are implied by it?

Modern atonement theories have the tendency, moreover, to read modern ideas of sacrifice into the New Testament references to sacrifice (or to make sense of all of the references in light of the last, moral sort mentioned above).16 Sacrifice for us is a primarily non-cultic act involving self-renunciation for others. It is a sorrowful act in which what is sacrificed is not offered to anyone but is simply considered a necessary cost incurred for doing the good. Cost to oneself therefore becomes a sign of the degree of dedication, a mark of disinterested nobility of effort for another's good. The cultic sacrifices of Israel (and Greece) are arguably quite the opposite: they are all rites that either celebrate or end in joyous communion-between human beings and God and among the human beings so blessed. The important point of the sacrifice is not the fact that one has given up something, since the people offering the sacrifice are often the ones who go on to eat it. The holocaust rites-in which the animal is completely lost to the worshipers-seem to suggest, not so much a renunciation of what is viewed as one's own, as a return to God of what is already God's, the return of a prior gift on Gods part to us (of at least the first fruits of those gifts) as an appropriate act of thanksgiving. The expiatory holocausts, where the animal's being entirely burnt seems to indicate the wiping away of whatever stands in the way of communion between God and human beings (sins, or ritual impurities), should then be understood with reference to the reinstitution of meal fellowship. The joy of Gods presence is their presupposition and end.

Those atonement theories that make the death of Christ saving have the tendency in this connection to overemphasize the importance of death to sacrificial rites.17 Certainly, the cross is associated with sacrifice because Jesus dies there for our sins, but that does not mean that death is the center of the rites with which the cross is being associated. Calling Jesus' death a sacrifice might be indeed a way of drawing attention to something taking place on the cross other than death. Particularly when sacrifices are viewed as establishing and maintaining community between God and human beings by way of commensality, killing the animal has the same sort of significance it would have in any meal: the animal needs to be killed in order to be eaten. Even when the animal is not eaten (but burnt), this seems a way of indicating that the food is being reserved for God-no one else can eat it. "The holocaust and the vegetable offering . . . which are wholly burned by fire [are like] a feast set for a superior in which the host does not share."18 Expiatory rites-where the animals death seems to be of central import as a way of wiping fault or impurity away-are an exception only when one fails to see them in light of the communion and thanksgiving meals that they reinstate and sustain. Understanding expiatory rites in this broader communion-rite frame, one might see the expiatory character of Jesus' "sacrifice" on the cross in a similar way-with reference to the images of communion sacrifice that occur before his death (again in Mark 14:24) and after-when Jesus eats with his disciples before his ascension and at a prophesied eschatological banquet (Mark 14:25). The point of Jesus' death being its provision of a meal is indeed a primary feature of Reformation interpretations of the eucharist; it is central, for example, to Calvin's argument that the eucharist is a meal and not a sacrifice, a meal subsequent to the sacrifice on the cross that makes it possible. Even without the connection to communion sacrifice, it is possible to argue that what expiates in these rites is not the death of the animal per se, but the blood poured out at death; blood purifies and reconnects across separation because of its life-giving powers-"the life is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11).

While being mindful of the historical complexities of sacrificial imagery is important in these ways to the assessment of Christian atonement models, it is not sufficient. One must be mindful too of the way the cross is not a sacrifice. The political execution of a beaten and scourged subversive on a polluted site outside the city gates is not anything close to the sacrifice of an animal without blemish in the temple at the hands of a priest. Sacrificial language is obviously being applied to something that is not a cultic sacrifice in order to throw some novel interpretive light on the cross. But this means that the differences from ordinary sacrifice should also be salient-much more salient than they are to modem people for whom cultic sacrifice is not a daily occurrence, for whom the cross is the only reference to cultic sacrifice they know. When such differences are clear, something novel is being said about the understanding of sacrifice appropriate here. Viewing the cross as a sacrificial act from the perspective of the incarnation is one (admittedly somewhat anachronistic) way of developing such differences and thereby seeing what is odd about the meaning of sacrifice when applied to the cross.

Understood as an act of redemption that follows from God's decision to be incarnate-understood indeed as a continuation of God's decision to make humanity its own in Christ-God's action on the cross to save takes center stage. The sacrifice of the cross is then viewed accordingly-as a rite performed by God and not human beings. God is sacrificing there for us and our salvation. If the work is done by God, the object of that work is human existence in its plight of sin and death. The sacrifice is not directed here to God but from God to human beings. Humans are not offering anything to God; God is giving to us.

If the man who dies on the cross is not just a man but God as well, then in a sense God is both the one sacrificing and the one sacrificed. The whole act is Gods. An expiatory rite where human beings kill something that they might otherwise use for their own sustenance is turned into a situation where God gives everything necessary, where God contributes all the elements, where God gives completely to us. Gods own substitution for human property in an expiatory rite in this way undercuts any element of human self-renunciation: since God is the victim, we do not have to sacrifice anything of ourselves, anything whose use might otherwise have contributed to our good.

But none of this takes away from the fact that the one sacrificed-killed-is the human being, Jesus. The suffering, dying human being, Jesus, is the one sacrificed. The rite is directed, as we have said, to the human, performed for the human in its circumstances of suffering and death. Any expiatory rite is focused on the human predicament-on the problem of sin or cultic impurity-and this feature is only accentuated by saying that God, radier than human beings, performs this rite of expiation for our sake.

The humanity of Jesus suffering under the burdens of sin and death is the sacrifice, but one must also remember that to sacrifice, literally, is to make sacred or holy-that is the sort of transformation that occurs through the rite, that is the point of the rite now directed to human beings in all the ugliness and brutality of their predicament in a world of sin. To sacrifice is, in other words, to sanctify. Looking ahead to his arrest, Jesus says in the farewell discourse, "for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may be sanctified" (John 17:19). Despite the fact that it takes place on the cross, this sanctification is not being identified with death but with life. Life is being brought to Jesus on the cross, as his resurrection makes clear. To be sacrificed, so as to be sanctified, is now not to die but to live, in a perfected and purified form.

Death is significant here because death is what is being sanctified, transformed, in the passage from death to life, and not because death is what is doing the sanctifying. God does not work sanctification by bringing Jesus to the cross, by killing him-human beings do that. In keeping with the focus on the life in the blood of the sacrificial animal, the "how" of this sacrifice is the life-giving power of the Word rather than the power of death. The life-giving properties of the Word are what sanctifies Jesus' humanity-healing his wounds, raising him from the dead, bringing him back to community with his disciples.

Here death does not bring about the transfer of the sacrificial object to God, the transfer of this human being into Gods possession, into the realm of the divine. Death itself (along with sin, rejection, conflict) is instead what is being transferred to God, in and through the already given fact of God's assumption of mortal flesh. The dying, suffering humanity is Gods own from the first as the humanity of the Word incarnate. Here God purchases us, in the sense of acquiring us as his own people, through the life-giving blood of Christ in the way God always acquires a people-through covenant communion with them (1 Pet. 2:9; Titus 2:14; Acts 20:28). This time this covenant of shared life amounts to incarnation, the assumption of the humanity of Christ, however dire its straits, as Gods own.

Sacrifices are acts done in order that we may cleave in human union with God.19 This sacrifice gives us access to God, as the epistle to the Hebrews says. But here God, by virtue of the incarnation, cleaves to us before the peiformance of any expiatory sacrifice on the cross; this expiatory rite thereby loses the character of being a condition for the maintenance of communion with God. The forgiveness of the cross, which indicates Gods acceptance of us, is offered here, for example, prior to the confession that is part of expiatory rites. From the very cross, without waiting for the repentance of his executioners, Jesus asks for our forgiveness-as Stephen does as he is stoned (Acts 7:60). This expiatory rite is not then a preparatory rite for communion sacrifice; communion has already occurred in Jesus' person by way of the incarnation.

Here is a sacrifice indeed without any preparatory rites of purification. The humanity of Christ enters unto the holy of holies as one defiled by sin, blemished, and impure through contact with death and the curse of the cross. There is no need of purification before contact with the holy-nor, for that matter, need the holy itself be purified of our sins in expiation rites on the day of atonement-because here the holy is evidently not contaminated by impurity or sin. Instead, there is every reason to bring the sinful, the death-ridden, the impure, into direct contact with the holy: that is the very means of their sanctification, as incarnation makes clear.

It is through this direct contact with the divine that sacrifice is overturned: Jesus is the sacrifice that ends sacrifice (Heb. 10). Sacrifice generally brings about union with the divine in a way that respects and enforces distance. Sacrificial systems differ, indeed, in the degree to which they stress the one side or the other, but Israelite sacrifice (like Greek, and unlike Vedic sacrifice) perhaps "consecrates the unattainable distance that henceforth separates them" even as it "seeks to join the mortal with the immortal."20 The more expiatory ritual, for example, comes to the fore, as it arguably does after the exile, the more fault and alienation are foregrounded in rituals that nonetheless bind humans to God. Like the Pythagorean critics of Greek sacrifice, Christian accounts of the cross as a sacrifice would be proposing a kind of closeness of contact or proximity with God that undercuts the very presuppositions of sacrifice for both Greeks and Jews.

This has its social consequences. Through an alimentary code, sacrifice is concerned with the careful delimitation and allocation of the place of human beings: neither the animals they sacrifice, nor the gods they worship.21 Talking of the crucifixion as the sacrifice of a God/man blurs the difference between sacrifice (to which the animal victim is thought to consent) and murder, between animal victims and human sacrificers, between human sacrificers and God-the very divisions that supposedly ground human civilization according to the presuppositions of sacrificial rites. The human divisions that sacrifice enacts by way of entrance and exit to the holy, by way of restrictions and inclusions to meal fellowship, by way of the parceling out of animal parts, are threatened with effacement as well. Since Jesus shares our sufferings, weakness, and trials and yet is the very blood splattered upon the inner sanctuary of Gods presence, every Christian, like the high priest on the day of the atonement, now has access to the holy of holies through him (Heb. 4:15-16, 10:19-20).

Let me try to bring this all together in conclusion. Humans are not to offer sacrifices to God. God to the contrary makes gifts to us for use on our behalf (for which we are admittedly to be grateful in "sacrifices" of praise and thanksgiving). The whole of Jesus' life-before, as after his death-is such a life-giving sacrifice given by God for us to feed on, for our nourishment.

Putting those gifts to use for the good of themselves and others, human beings become living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Not sacrifices sanctified in death, but in the lives they live, for life. Humans no longer offer gifts to God to be consumed in fiery holocausts-since God needs nothing but wants to give all, since God does not destroy what God uses for Gods own purposes. Instead humans make a proper sacrifice in life-enhancing use, for the good of human life, of what God gives them in sacrifice-the life-enhancing powers of the Word. The direction of these living human sacrifices becomes in this way the same as Gods: toward the satisfaction of human needs, the reversal of the effects of sin on human life. Service to the neighbor becomes the reality designated by "sacrifices to God." Here we see a connection with the sacrifices of martyrs, but a connection that now downplays their deaths in that it calls attention to lives dedicated wholly and unswervingly to God's mission of life, as Jesus' was. As one martyred for refusing to sacrifice said:

We have been taught that [God] has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense. We praise him to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we have been supplied. We have been taught that the only honor that is worthy of him is not to consume by fire what he has brought into being for our sustenance but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to him to offer thanks by solemn hymns for our creation.22

1 For summary statements of feminist and womanist worries, see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "The Execution of Jesus and the Theology of the Cross" in Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum, 1994), 97-128; and Delores Williams, "Black Women's Surrogate Experience and the Christian Notion of Redemption," in Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel, ed., After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 1-13.

2 Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001). I am indebted to Jim Griffiss for his generous readings of early versions of the book, which helpfully turned my attention to Anglican precursors of some of the positions argued there-for example, A. M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition (Wilton, Conn.: More-house-Barlow Publishers, 1988).

3 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 159.

4 Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, A. G. Hebert, trans. (1930; London: SFCK, 1965).

5 Gregory of Naziunzus, "Fourth Theological Oration," in Edward R. Hardy, ed., Christoloftj of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 180.

6 Gregory of Nazianzus, "Fourtli Theological Oration," 192.

7 Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Aj)ItI., 26; and Ep. adv. Apol., cited by Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, 162.

8 Gregory of Nyssa, "The Great Catechism," in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), chapter 24, at 494.

9 Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, John McGuckin, Irans. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), 132-133.

10 Athanasius, "Four Discourses against the Arians," in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), Discourse One, chapter 11.44, at 332.

11 John Meyendorff, "Christ's Humanity: The Paschal Mystery," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 31 (1987): 5-40, at 15-31.

12 Robert J. Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 34-35.

13 See Frances M. Young, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in Greek Christian Writers from the New Testament to John Chrysostom (Cambridge, Mass.: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979).

14 See Young, Use of Sacrificial Ideas; and Stanislas Lyonnet, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970).

15 See Marcel Detienne, "Culinary Practices and the Spirit of Sacrifice," in Marcel Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, ed., The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 1-20; Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Stanley Stowers, "Greeks Who Sacrifice and Those Who Do Not," in L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, ed., The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 293-333.

16 See Daly, Origins, 2-4.

17 See J.-P. Vernant, "A General Theory of Sacrifice and the Slaying of the Victim in the Greek Thusia," in Mortals and Immortals (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 290-301; and Sarah Pierce, "Death, Revelry, and Thysia," Classical Antiquity 12.2 (1993): 219-261.

18 John Dunhill, "Communicative Bodies and Economies of Grace: The Role of Sacrifice in the Christian Understanding of the Body," Journal of Religion 83 (2003): 79-93, at 86.

19 See Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), book 10, chapters 3-6, at 375-380.

20 Vermint, "General Theory," 297.

21 Paraphrasing Vermint, "General Theory," 297.

22 Justin Martyr, "The First Apology," in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), chapter 13, 166; translation slightly altered following Everett Ferguson, "Spiritual Sacrifice," Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt II 23.2 (1980): 1151-1189, at 1172.

[Author Affiliation]


[Author Affiliation]

* Kathryn Tanner is professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This paper was originally presented at the meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology, Newcastle, England, in the spring of 2003.


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