Religion

The cross of Jesus: God’s awful work of love

Bishop Robert Barron on Fleming Rutledge and what exactly is happening on the cross

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I would like to continue reflecting on Fleming Rutledge’s extraordinary book The Crucifixion, which I consider one of the most insightful theological books of the decade. In a previous article, I drew attention to Rutledge’s bracing insistence on the awfulness and shame of the crucifixion. In the ancient world, there was no punishment more painful, terrifying, and de-humanizing than the cross. It is not simply that Jesus died or even that he was put to death by corrupt people; it was that he endured the death reserved only for the lowest and most despised. In the light of the resurrection, the first Christians looked back on this horrific event and saw in it something commensurate with the weight of sin. Somehow, on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the Son of God was addressing what could not be adequately addressed in any other way; he was paying the requisite price.

Now Rutledge knows that to recover this dimension of the cross of Jesus is to bring us close to the thought of one of the most influential and controversial theologians of the Christian tradition, namely, Anselm of Canterbury. As even casual students of theology know, Anselm is the author of the so-called “satisfaction” theory, according to which Jesus’ death was a sacrifice sufficient to satisfy the just demand of God the Father vis-à-vis the sinful human race. Because Jesus was fully human, he could act as representative of fallen men and women, and because he was fully divine, he could assuage the infinite anger of the Father. This is why, according to the neat logic of Anselm, the Son of God became human: Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man) is the title of Anselm’s treatise in which this theory is laid out.

Critiques of this theory emerged even during Anselm’s lifetime, and they have become especially pointed in our time. I remember attending a high-level meeting of theologians many years ago and hearing a paper that pilloried Anselm as the proponent of “cosmic child-abuse,” since he held that the Father took delight in the suffering of his Son. Others have complained that Anselm’s God is like a pathetic tin-pot dictator whose offended honor has to be restored, or like a raging alcoholic parent whose anger has to be quieted at all costs. Rutledge is especially good at answering these objections and also in showing that the facile turning away from Anselm in much of contemporary theology has produced superficial interpretations of the cross.

Let’s deal with the difficulties first. Like all of his medieval colleagues, Anselm was convinced that God is immutable. This means, of course, that God does not pass in and out of emotional states, moving from anger to serenity or from offended pride to self-satisfaction. Further, Anselm knew perfectly well what is articulated in the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…” The Incarnation was not prompted by a desire for retribution, and the cross does not result in the restoration of a disturbed divine psyche. Rather, from beginning to end, God’s activity in Christ was marked, through and through, by love. Another way to put this is that the Father and the Son acted always in unison, indeed in the unity of the Holy Spirit, even when they seemed, on the cross of Jesus, most alienated from one another. So any talk of alcoholic fathers and divine child abuse is beyond silly and deeply unfair to Anselm.

So what exactly is happening on the cross? Rutledge draws attention to Anselm’s interlocutor in Cur Deus Homo, a fellow monk named Boso, who plaintively asks the master why God could not simply have pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven and dispensed with all of the blood and horror of the crucifixion. Anselm replies, “You have not considered the weight of sin.” On a Biblical reading, sin is not simply a series of peccadillos that can be dealt with through earnest repentance or political reform or psychological manipulation. Sin is rather like a disease or an addiction, a state in which we find ourselves stuck. In point of fact, our thrashing around will serve only to make the situation worse, which can be seen over and again in human history. A power must come from outside of sin but at the same time, it must enter into sin, battling it, reversing it, breaking it from the inside. Work has to be done; a war has to be won; a price has to be paid—again, not to satisfy God, but to set things right for us. Indeed, Anselm specifies that the Son of God went all the way to the bottom of the muck of human dysfunction in order to recover the diamond (the image of God in us) and polish it to a shine. A mere word of forgiveness, uttered from the safety of heaven, would never have affected such a transformation. On that terrible cross, Jesus took upon himself the worst of humanity and swallowed it up in the ever greater divine mercy.

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Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.