Book Review: ‘Construing the Cross: Type, Sign, Symbol, Word, Action’, by Frances M. Young

Construing the Cross: Type, Sign, Symbol, Word, Action‘, by Frances M. Young

Cascade Books, 160 pp. $19.00

Construing the Cross, Frances Young’s Didsbury Lecture, is a slim volume packed with insights theological, anthropological, biblical, and whatever-else-ical. Do not be fooled by the size of this book – there’s more meat here than in many substantially larger tomes.

Young’s goal here is fairly simple and is given away in the title: she’s taking us on a journey through the various ways that the cross was construed in early Christian thought before the onset of ‘atonement theories’ (while not exactly a bogeyman, ‘atonement theories’ function as a bit of negative here). Young’s first look focuses on the Passover as the primary way in which Christians thought of the cross. Patristic and biblical texts are the key sources here, and Young cites Melito as drawing deeply from the Exodus narrative to show that the Gospel itself is a parallel to the Exodus. For Melito, Christ is:

…the one who clad death in shame, and, as Moses did to Pharaoh, made the devil grieve…This is the one who delivered us from slavery to freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal Kingdom, and made us a new priesthood, and a people everlasting for himself. (p. 6)

Young points out that Christ is the climax of Melito’s parallel narrative – indeed, he is the climax of the whole narrative. Irenaeus’s recapitulation is also invoked, and Young masterfully shows the contours of Irenaeus’s thought. The New Testament is also surveyed, and Young draws attention to a number of key passages in John to show that Jesus’s death is itself a liberation from spiritual oppression and bondage – the cross is modeled on Passover and Exodus. They can’t be separated – the Passion and Passover are linked together here, and the Passion community is drawn into the Passover story in its Eucharistic practices. Young also notes that:

If we inquire how this relates to the usual atonement theories, we find it fits to some extent with Aulen’s classic theory. There is an implied dualism, humanity seduced by a fallen angel, and then rescued from the consequences by God in Christ. But there is no trace of the idea of victory over the powers of evil in a cosmic battle, nor of a ransom offering to the devil to buy freedom for mankind. There is no attempt to produce a rational schema in terms of some kind of transaction. Rather, there is a collective experience of entering imaginatively into an ancient story, through commemoration, and finding self-knowledge, release,  and enlightenment in the act of that liturgical and typological engagement with scripture read in the light of the cross of Christ. (p. 19)

The second chapter deals with the themes of scapegoat and sacrifice, and is more or less an extended engagement with Girard. This was a fascinating chapter, with Young contending (among other things, but these are the two things that jumped out to me) (1) sacrifice was much more centered on food and preparation than communal violence and (2) that the cross as sacrifice only makes sense within the context of the Passover. Young argues for (2) by noting that unlike an actual sacrifice, there’s no priest, no altar, no fire, no ritual killing, etc – it was a typological reading of Scripture by later Christians that saw Christ as a sacrifice which established the covenant that was prophesied by Jeremiah. Typology is central here, for Young, and it’s this that allows her to escape what she sees as the tendency to impose our own ideas of violence and victims onto the concept of sacrifice. Also central is Young’s insistence that Jesus’s death as a sacrifice can’t be contained by any atonement theory (though she sees room for a ransom theory). She makes the closest link with Abelard, and argues that the sacrifice on the cross is construed by the early Christian communities, through the commemoration of the Eucharist, as a saving act of God. Young ends by suggesting that the best way to construe the cross is as ‘a sign of life’.

The third chapter traces the history of the symbolism of the tree in relation to the cross, and this was especially interesting to me. If, as she says, the cross is a sign of life, then the tree is surely the most prominent and important symbol that has this meaning. Ancient near eastern, ancient mythological, ancient Hebrew, Patristic, medieval and modern ways of thinking of trees are all examined here, and each adds a layer to what Young calls the ‘multi-valent’ symbolism. – I won’t give away too much, as this is a fascinating chapter, but Young situates the symbol of the tree as a sign of life within a recapitulation/re-creation framework .

The next chapter looks at other signs and symbols, focusing on the palm, the good shepherd and the serpent. The serpent is examined in the most detail, and it’s a very interesting thread that Young follows, from the Old Testament to the patristics, where she notes a distinct patristic anxiety in identifying Christ with the serpent in the Old Testament (from Numbers 21), specifically in Justin and Gregory of Nazianzus (who insisted that the serpent wasn’t a type of Christ but a contrast). Young concludes this chapter by arguing that the serpent-motif lends itself to a construal of the cross as healing act, rather than atonement, and offers a profound reflection on the meaning of the various signs and symbols surveyed here:

Going back to our initial exploration of the manifold signs and symbols of the cross, could this carry any significance for us? Well the, tree of life could lend itself, perhaps, to the symbolism of blossom, fruit and health-giving leaves, pointing to paradise and eschatological promise, as we saw in the last chapter; but are any others at all promising for our own reflection, especially when it is a case of simply correlating miscellaneous things with the shape of the cross?

The sign of the cross in our world might be the suffering of innocents, the abuse and atrocities we are constantly confront with on the news and to which our culture is now so sensitive. This has produced already an approach to the cross that goes beyond anything in the tradition: the cross is now widely treated as a sign of God so loved in the world that in Jesus Christ God’s very self identified, with indeed entered into, that surd of suffering that seems to the challenge God’s goodness and the goodness of the divine creation, God thus taking responsibility for it all and suffering alongside. In this perspective the cross reinforces the saying of Jesus, “Not a sparrow Falls without your heavenly Father”. This is an insight into the cross that was simply not possible for the patristic era, but one that might follow for us from their perception of signs pointing to the reality of the cross in all kinds of patterns and places in the life of humankind on Earth. (pp. 98-99)

The final chapter serves as a concluding reflection, setting the conclusions of the previous lectures within the context of liturgy, language, myth, history, and cosmic drama. Her goal is to move away from what she takes to a tendency in modernity towards speculative, theoretical thinking and closer to a more spiritual kind of discerning of the biblical texts in order to regain past (and in some cases lost) insight.

Young’s trip through the construal of the cross is a delightful one, and any student of the atonement or early Christian thought would do well to read it. Her setting of Christ’s sacrificial death within the context of Passover and her exposition of the motif of the serpent are my two favourite parts of the book – for my money, that’s where the meat is.

Having said that, I do have some questions. The antagonism towards ‘atonement theories’ rarely becomes explicit and remains confined for the most part to concluding chapter reflections, leaving one to wonder just what it is exactly that she finds so unhelpful. Terms like ‘rational schemas’ make it easy to guess what she takes to be the problem with atonement theories, but exactly why she takes that to be a problem is less clear. A chapter or even a section within a chapter dealing with atonement theories and their perceived shortcomings would have been helpful. One also wonders if the concepts and ideas she uses (recapitulation, healing, etc) aren’t themselves atonement theories or at least part of larger theories – I don’t really think anyone would deny that the atonement includes healing, or is first and foremost a mighty act of God. The only other issues I’d have aren’t really anything that could be helped given the nature of the book as a published lecture – here and there more it felt a bit rushed (the chapter on the symbolism of the tree felt that way – lots of ground covered very quickly).

All in all, a fantastic study by a brilliant scholar. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to broaden their understanding of the construal of the cross in early Christian thought.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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