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)

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The Natural Theology of Negation

In ‘Christianity and Classical Culture‘, Jaroslav Pelikan spends a good deal of time on the topics of both natural theology and negative theology, or apophatic theology, in the thought of the Cappodicians. The Cappodicians were concerned not only with the dogmas of the Trinity, Holy Spirit and so on but also with interacting from the classical Greek culture in which they were steeped, and they had no hesitation in appropriating what they took to be parallels between classical thought and Christian thought.

A key example can be found in Gregory of Nyssa, whose overall method was what we might call a method of ‘circumcision’ – so named because he took there to be a number of doctrines in classical thought (creation, for example) that in and of themselves were sound but needed to have the corrupting aspects cut away, as it were (in this case, Gregory cuts away Plato’s doctrine of the co-existence and co-eternality of matter with the creator).

Gregory’s method, then, looks something like this:

(1) find parallels between classical thought and Christian thought

(2) tease out the truths in the parallels

(2a) from (1) and (2) establish a kind of ‘natural theology’

(3) cut away the contrasts – the corrupting philosophy attached to the parallels

Gregory can thus point to a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural religion’ – he is fond of saying ‘Does not nature say the same?’, when arguing for Christianity, and provide some answers to objections to his faith. This was a key task for the Cappodicians and indeed their apologetics overlap considerably with their evangelistic and pastoral concerns (at times it is difficult to even distinguish between the three).

Taken in an unqualified sense such a method poses grave dangers – it is but a step from the above method to drawing positive statements about the divine on the basis of created, finite things, and this was a danger of which the Cappodicians were fully aware. It was with this danger in mind that they expounded their negative theology:

‘To protect themselves against distortion, whether accidental or deliberate, any “proper conceptions about the divine nature”, therefore, needed to begin from the fundamental premise that the divine nature was “unlike anything known” that might be used in speaking about it.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, p. 45

Such was the language of negation – the recognition that there was no way for human thought or language to ever comprehend fully the divine. There is no perfect analogy – any analogy had to proceed with the presupposition that while it may be an understandable analogy it is ultimately an inadequate one. Apophatic theology thus serves as a guide or a boundary marker within which reason is free:

‘For negative theology could be construed not only as a limitation on the mind but at the same time as a liberation of the mind, setting the human reason, as the image of God, free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it.’ (p. 57)

It is not reason itself, however, that recognizes these limits. This recognition comes through faith, a mode of knowing given through grace, and it is faith that recognizes and accepts the transcendence of God – for Gregory, the divine has its being where thought does not reach.

An interesting contrast may here be noted between the Cappodicians and Aristotle. The latter held that being qua being is the proper object of human inquiry and the end of human reason – the former held that apart from faith, the divine being was hidden from human reason and in fact was not comparable to any other thing that existed or could be known:

‘Apophatic metaphysics, then, was inseparable from apophatic epistemology, whose fundamental axiom was: “The divine being is to be known only in the impossibility of perceiving it.” The divine being – to whom, at Athens in the very first confrontation between Christianity and classical culture, the apostle Paul had applied a quotation from a pagan Greek poet, “In him we live and move, in him we exist” – could not be compared to any other beings to which the terms “being” and “knowing” had ever been applied. In the case of these other beings, a growth in human knowledge meant an increase in understanding and comprehending the subject, but here it meant the opposite, an ever deepening awareness of the incomprehensibility of the subject.” (p 55)

There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfills and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.

Atonement Notes

The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:

Christus Victor – for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.

Healing – this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.

Recapitulation – developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.

Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.

The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.

What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.

Note on the Atonement in the ante-Nicene Fathers

The consensus of the ante-Nicene fathers on the nature of the atonement is firmly Christus Victor – actually, I’m hardly able to find any kind of dissenting viewpoint at all. Virtually every father saw the atonement as the triumph of Christ over the powers – while it’s not as developed as it would come to be, I think it’s safe to say that the early church’s view of the atonement was Christus Victor, and almost nothing else.

Another Trinitarian Thought

Gregory Nyssa holds that the Godhead isn’t a description of God’s nature but rather an operation which unites the persons of the Trinity. Gregory gets into what the term actually means in ‘On Not Three Gods’:

‘…we suppose that “Godhead” (theotes) is derived from “beholding” (thea) and that by general custom and the teaching of the Scriptures, he who is our beholder (theates) is called God (theos). Now if anyone admits that to behold and to see are the same thing, and that the god who oversees all things both is and is called the overseer of the universe, let him consider whether this operation belongs to one of the Persons we believe to constitute the holy Trinity, or whether the power extends to the three Persons. For if our interpretation of “Godhead” is the right one, and the things which are said to be beheld (theata) and that which beholds them is called God (theos), no one of the Persons of the Trinity could properly be excluded from this form of address on the ground of this meaning of the word.’ (‘On Not Three Gods’)

So, again, Nyssa basically grounds the unification of the three persons in the operation of the Godhead – the operation(s) flow in one motion from the Father, through the son, to the Spirit.