One of the most puzzling things about the cross is how one person can give his life for many? How is one person’s death a sufficient payment of sin? Is it purely a matter of representation or substitution or exchange or a mixture of all three? When I survey the scriptures regarding the Messiah’s crucifixion, the issue of “the one for the many” does come up but it is stated as a matter of fact. They do not stop to ask the mechanism by which it works. Going far back as the Torah, no one pauses to explain how sacrifice works. In fact many of the details of the sacrifice we have no way of telling why one animal was chosen over the other or why the blood is applied one way not the other etc.
In an interview of world renowned theologian Tom Wright, he described this understanding of sacrifice as instinctive in ancient cultures. The soil of the ancient world was red with sacrifice. He remarked how atonement theologies lacked a serious anthropological study of why people thought that way and what it meant to them. Wright is not the only one to bring up the anthropological dimension.
Generally, from what I have seen about atonement theories, they are usually held apart from one another. We think Jesus’ death on the crossed worked only one way and not another. We can’t imagine it doing multiple things from different angles at one. Given this atomistic approach it is unsurprising the anthropological angle is left aside, especially when it is not under the direct expertise of the theologian. Wright, Michael J. Gorman and most recently Peter Leithart are theologians who are trying to bring them all together, each attempting to do so in varying ways with varying degrees of success. Leithart particularly caught my attention with a review of his “Big Red Book About Everything” Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission over at Reformedish. Though I am yet to read the book I was very intrigued by his approach. As the title which is line from Galatians suggests, he wants to bring all the elements to bear on the cross by envisioning atonement theology as a “social theory.” This integrated approach which looks at how people behave made me take a second look at the anthropology of the cross. This time I didn’t look at how people thought it worked even though that is very important but in terms of what it means to be human.
If Christ’s gave his life for all past, present and future, then a claim is being made about what it means to be human. In my basic undergraduate psychology class which I took for a semester, we explored the philosophical roots of the discipline. When it comes to the question of “how do I know I exist?” René Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” According to our lecturer the African philosophy of self is “I am because we are.” Atonement theologies developed in the West tend to emphasize the rational individualism of Descartes. They try and break things down, reducing them to one thing and how it applies to the individual. Personally, I think for atonement theories to work they need the more African anthropology of group identity. It includes the rational component in being able to recognize other minds but not missing the important fact that humans are social creatures. Being Ghanaian I am not too far away from active traditions of ritual sacrifice. However, I do not think it is only “I am because we are”, it is also “we are because I am.” Group identity and individual identity should be held together. In making us who we are, somethings are innate but we are still shaped by our social environment. As the famous refrain of the Three Musketeers goes, “All for one and one for all.”
In the New Testament the cross is the turning point of human history. As Jesus said, “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.” It is not a sacrifice but the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. It is therefore the pinnacle of sacrificial philosophy and practice. Sacrifice itself is a uniquely human practice. We somehow know within ourselves the power meaning of sacrifice. As I earlier mentioned the sacrifice of Christ takes the anthropological dimension to an unparalleled height as a divinely instituted offering for all humanity. All humans are in consideration on the cross. That being the case what it means to be human must be found on the cross.
To me it seems it profoundly primal that a sacrifice should be the very thing that brings all humanity together before their Maker. Paul in Ephesians hints at the universal anthropology of the cross when he says the dividing wall between Jew and Gentiles has been torn down on Calvary. He doesn’t stop there. The loose aggregates of humanity are pulled together and redefined in the cross. I believe these disparate elements include our various theories. Paul clearly thinks the sacrifice of the Messiah has the power to redeem the mind, taking what we know and think into new directions. It’s not only a mental newness of course. He says in the Messiah one new man made is made of the two.
Before I end I must emphasize the cross is not a theory. It is an event, something to be known and experienced. Whatever we come up with are ways of understanding the event. However, I do not think it should stop there. The cross teaches us that in ourselves we are weak, including our various attempts to make sense of it. The weirdness of the crucifixion challenges every single product of the human intellect. It’s deeply offensive and abhorrent yet it is the means of our deliverance. We need to submit our various theories with all of ourselves to the transforming power of the crucified Christ. It is at the place where Christ’s body is broken that we are made whole.