In the aftermath of Easter, as any number of white lilies start to turn brown in our homes and jelly beans are half off at Walgreen, I find myself getting contemplative about the matters commemorated over the weekend just past. Is it possible that the whole Christian–and especially Evangelical–focus on the cross of Jesus is misguided? Could it be that the moving demonstration we made at our church on Palm Sunday, nailing notes inscribed with our sins to crosses around the worship center, was a colossal waste of time that could have been better spent redeeming creation somehow?
Elizabeth A. Johnson seems to think so. This theologian’s latest book, Creation and the Cross argues that Christianity has made far too much of a deal about the atonement and satisfaction of God’s wrath at the cross. Don’t take my word for it:
Over time, however, a powerful current emerged in Western theology that favored a focus on sin and the cross. This was a juridical or legal way of thinking that interpreted sin as breaking a divine law. The work of redemption was a free and gracious act that nevertheless required something by way of penalty or recompense on the part of the law-breakers . . . Such was offered by the death of Jesus, his body broken and his blood poured out for us.
Johnson lays the blame for this thought at the feet of Anselm, the eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote an influential text on the topic. She argues that Anselm’s book, Cur Deus Homo, was really just an outgrowth of the Medieval and feudal justice system. She never seems to consider the possibility that the Medieval justice system might have been an outgrowth of the biblical view instead.
Johnson really wants us to focus on the groaning of creation. By the second paragraph of the text, she’s declaring “a time of advancing ecological devastation.” Apparently, we should spend less time talking about the cross and more time recycling.
Of course, if the cross-justice view of Anselm is really just a product of his day and age, then shouldn’t Johnson be fair enough to admit that her theories might just be a product of her day and age?
The reality, however, is that Anselm didn’t start anything. If anything, Paul started this view:
But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world.–Galatians 6:14
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.–1 Corinthians 2:2
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,–Romans 6:6
And the reality is also that the redemption of Creation will never be effected without the victory over sin. Good hearted people have tried to clean the air, protect the water, defend the species, and restore balance. All they’ve managed to achieve is to improve one disaster as another one emerges. Yes, Creation groans. It groans because of sin and the answer for that sin is not the warm thoughts of the NPR set but the meaningful application of the blood of Jesus to our hearts and an openness to all of the inconvenient life changes that application might provoke.
Do we talk too little about Creation? I think we do, but we cannot remedy that by talking less about the cross of Christ.