Making meaning out of the cross

Making meaning out of the cross

My 2018 Good Friday sermon seems to have attracted rather more attention, and to have triggered much more conversation, than any other recent sermon. The overwhelming tone of the communications that I have received have been appreciative, positive and supportive. However, I also know that in certain theological corners my views have caused dismay and shock.

The fact that my sermon could have triggered such a disparity of responses, suggests that some of the response are actually driven by pre-existing attitudes towards me and my work, whether positive or negative. That is natural and of no concern to me, whether those people are friends or critics. C’est la vie.

The fact that so many of my critics—even those with a theological qualification—are shocked and dismayed by what I said, is a sad reflection on the narrowness of their own theological formation and their blissful blindness to the rich diversity that exists in Christian theology.

My Good Friday sermon focused on some of the historical aspects of the crucifixion, and I suggested my audience put aside three common but faulty (‘bad’) ideas about the cross, while also suggesting one other way to think about the cross which they might have found helpful to consider.

In brief, the three common but faulty ideas were:

1. The cross as an act of divine wrath or sacred violence;
2. The suffering experienced by Jesus as the reason that the cross matters; and
3. Our personal sins as the cause of Jesus being crucified.

The suggested alternative way to think about the death of Jesus that I offered was to think of it as an act of faithfulness by Jesus, who was willing to go anywhere and suffer anything for the sake of the reign of God, an idea that lay at the heart of his own mission and ministry. I grounded that suggestion—that it is the faithfulness of Jesus (η πιστις του Ιησου) that should be central to our thinking about the cross—in the teachings of St Paul in Romans 4.

Despite this careful work of deconstruction and reconstruction, which was actually well received by the congregation for whom it was prepared and to whom it was delivered, my sermon has been misunderstood—and in some cases, I suggest, deliberately misrepresented—as an attack on and a denial of particular beliefs about the atonement which some people at least consider to be the very core of Christian faith.

That assessment is doubly misguided and in its own way rather sad. I neither denied such beliefs nor are they central to the Gospel, even if they are so viewed by some people with a very particular and extremely narrow view of theology.

In offering—in this essay—a more extended discussion of the theological meaning of the death of Jesus than was possible in the context of a sermon, let me make some initial observations before moving to more specific comments.

First of all, as the title of this essay suggests, any Christian reflection on the cross is a recovery project. We are seeking to salvage something good out of a tragedy. We are seeking to make meaning out of a mistake. The execution of Jesus by the Roman administration in Judaea and Samaria was a miscarriage of justice, but hardly a unique event in that respect; either in those days or our own. It was also a mistake in a more ironic sense, in that if the execution was intended to put a stop to the revolutionary God-talk promoted by Jesus then it demonstrably failed and within 300 years the Emperor of Rome would not only have become a devotee of Jesus but would also chair the Council of Nicaea. In purely historical terms, the cross was a major mistake by the powers that were.

Secondly, in seeking to fashion a wholesome meaning (and that adjective is deliberate as I do believe that most Christian theological interpretation of the cross has not been wholesome) from the execution of Jesus, we need to be as ‘wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’, as Jesus once said. In other words, this is complicated and requires sophisticated thinking and the cognitive capacity to practice nuance in our project. Those skills seem demonstrably lacking in most of the negative responses to my Good Friday sermon as well as in some of the positive responses. In popular terms, we need to avoid throwing out the baby when emptying the bath water.

In this case, we need to be able to distinguish between intention and effect. Were I to be on trial for causing the death of another person, a critical matter to be determined by the judge or jury—apart from the historicity of the core events—would be my intention at the time that I caused the death of the other party. The result of my actions would not be in doubt, but the nature of what happened would depend very much on what my intention was thought to have been.

For the biblical authors—all of them Jewish and all them people whose mental and verbal discourse was framed within an Aramaic context, which itself had affinities with Biblical Hebrew—it was difficult to distinguish between intent and consequence. We see this very clearly in the gospels where some ancient words from Isaiah are quoted approvingly:

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” [Mark 4:11-12]

No competent biblical scholar would interpret those words to mean that Jesus used parables, or that Isaiah fashioned his prophetic oracles, in order to confuse people and avoid them ever comprehending the message. Rather, we observe that these verses speak about the outcome of the parables (lack of insight) rather than the intention of the prophet. Within the Hebrew and Aramaic linguistic worlds it was very difficult to distinguish clearly intention from effect.

Similarly, when seeking to make meaning out of the cross, we need first of all to distinguish between the effect of Jesus’ death and the historical causes of his execution, and then we need also to avoid retrospectively converting our (later) understanding of the ‘benefits of the passion’ into a statement of the reasons why Jesus died.

That is indeed a narrow path, but it is the path that leads to wisdom even if many people of simple faith are not able to walk such a fine line.

The third preliminary observation I need to make concerns my reliance on Paul’s letter to the Romans rather than a mishmash of Pauline ideas aggregated from across the seven (probably) authentic letters of Paul, or even the canonical collection of 13 ‘pauline’ letters. This is really quite a simple point, even though it has clearly gone unnoticed by some of my informed but narrow-minded critics.

The letter to the Romans was probably the last of Paul’s authentic letters. Unlike most of his earlier letters, it was crafted as an intentional statement of his core theological ideas rather than fashioned in response to a pastoral crisis in a particular congregation. It does have many similarities with Galatians, and there too we find Paul speaking about the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’, but Romans is an expanded and revised form of Paul’s earlier ideas and so far as we can tell it was his final theological testament. (I acknowledge that many of my critics want to claim all 13 letters as authentic, but they are whistling in the dark so far as mainstream critical NT scholarship is concerned.)

For these reasons, I am happy to take the theology of the cross in Romans as the most developed and final version of Paul’s thinking on the topic, and I do not accept suggestions that our interpretation of Romans should be held hostage to Paul’s earlier pastoral correspondence. We can certainly learn something about the development of Paul’s ideas when we study all of his writings, but I am interested in his mature thoughts rather than his earlier thinking.

Finally, by way of preliminary observations, let me note that the gospels themselves do not provide us with a transcript of what Jesus said, but with various inter-dependent theological presentations about Jesus. While the Gospel of Mark may have been written in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century, its revised and enlarged edition—known to us as the Gospel of Matthew—most probably dates from around 110 C.E. The Gospel of John was probably composed around 100 C.E., while the Gospel of Luke may not have been written until around 125 C.E. Each of the gospels has roots going back into the oral and literary traditions of earliest Christianity, but none of them is an eyewitness account and all of them are highly constructed theological documents.

This is familiar information to anyone with a basic degree in Theology, even though there may be some room to quibble over the dates that I propose; but is resisted and denied by more recalcitrant conservative souls. It does mean that we must read these documents theologically and not mistake them as verbatim accounts of what Jesus may once have said. Again, nuance is a key element of biblical literacy and spiritual wisdom.

It will be no surprise that the New Testament offers us multiple, contradictory and overlapping ways of making meaning out of the death of Jesus. Without seeking to be comprehensive, these include at least the following theological interpretations of the cross:

• Jesus as the lamb of God
• Jesus dying as a ransom for others
• Jesus as the suffering servant
• Jesus’ death as being ‘according to the scriptures’
• Jesus as the innocent victim, or suffering righteous one
• Jesus as our Passover lamb
• Jesus as a sin offering
• Jesus as the divine Lord emptying himself even to death on a cross
• Jesus as ‘God in Christ reconciling the world …’
• Jesus as the Second Adam whose death brings life for all
• Jesus’ death as a propitiatory sacrifice
• Jesus as the truly faithful person parallel to Abraham
• Jesus as a second Isaac, the only beloved son offered by the father
• Jesus as an eternal High Priest offering the once-only sacrifice of his own life/blood
• Jesus as the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world
• Jesus as the eternal Son willingly laying down and taking up again his own life
• Jesus as the one raised up like the serpent in the wilderness and drawing all to himself
• Jesus as the grain of wheat that falls into the ground

It is already clear from this preliminary inventory of NT interpretations of the cross that there is no single big idea that dominates the early Christian responses to the cross, and also that these ideas, for the most part, deploy metaphor rather than literal language.

In my Good Friday sermon this year, I was clearly suggesting that people engage with the developed Pauline concept of Jesus as a ‘second Abraham’, whose faithfulness to God on the cross was a greater parallel to Abraham’s faithfulness (possibly at the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22?) and with wider benefits, since all humanity is blessed because of the faithfulness of Jesus whereas only ‘Israel’ was blessed because of the faithfulness of Abraham.

Interestingly, the ecumenical councils that have authority in the broad catholic church have never attempted to define one single doctrine of the atonement. This is surprising on at least two counts. First, because this would seem to be such a central theological issue for Christians, although its significance for those faith communities that formed at the time of the European Reformation may not reflect the importance of this belief in the Patristic and Medieval periods. Secondly, given that so much else is defined in the creeds, it is odd that this key area of Christian faith has never been defined in a singular form that requires our assent.

Within the life of the Anglican Communion, there are two ways that Anglicans affirm one or more of these biblical metaphors: in our authorised liturgies, and in the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles.

Anglican theology is fashioned, communicated and reinforced especially through our liturgies, including our hymnody. In the case of our theology of the cross, this is especially expressed in the various approved prayers for the Great Thanksgiving at the Eucharist. These prayers clearly focus on just a small subset of the metaphors provided for us in the New Testament, and it might be desirable if the set of authorised eucharistic prayers offered a wider range of biblical metaphors for the cross. At this stage, they do not, and in that sense our common worship still reflects—and largely stays within—the medieval theological mindset of the pre-Reformation western church. There is yet more truth to break forth from God’s word, but our agreed liturgical texts will take a long time to reflect those new insights.

In the case of the Thirty-Nine Articles, I would offer two observations.

First of all—and most significantly, I suggest—the doctrine of the atonement was not an issue of such controversy or prominence in the minds of those who drafted successive versions of the Articles of Religion to be addressed specifically. The only time we find an explicit reference to the atonement is at Article 31.


THE Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

Secondly, when the Articles do make specific reference to one interpretation of the death of Jesus it is in passing, and actually comes in an article that is addressing another matter. Article 31 is addressing—and condemning—an understanding of the Eucharist as a repeated offering of the sacrifice of Jesus. The argument against that traditional Roman understanding of the cross is that Jesus died ‘once for all’ and his sacrifice is not something that can be repeated.

Article 31 presumes an understanding of the death of Jesus as—in some unspecified sense—providing a ‘perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for all the sins of the world …’ Just how the death of Jesus does that is not explained or further elaborated. While not a formal teaching statement by the Anglican Church, and indeed a statement that has no standing at all in some provinces of the Anglican Communion (where the Articles of Religion from the Church of England have no jurisdiction), Article 31 is indicative of one of the ways in which faithful Anglicans might understand the meaning of the death of Jesus.

While considering what the Articles might have to say about the death of Jesus, we should perhaps also note Article 15:


CHRIST in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us

Again, while this article references the death of Jesus, and particularly his sinlessness, it does not provide a specific interpretation of the death of Jesus or explain how his death on the cross has the effect of “taking away the sins of the world”. Once again we have an oblique reference to the cross which is indicative of ways in which faithful Anglicans might understand the meaning of the death of Jesus.

Within the general theological framework—provided by Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, our authorised prayer books across the whole life of the Anglican Communion, and as reflected in the Articles of Religion of 1562—I seek to form an understanding of the death of Jesus as a critical moment in the economy of salvation.

While being careful not to confuse historical causes with subsequent theological interpretations, I find some of the biblical metaphors more persuasive than others.

As I have indicated on other occasions and in various publications, I am especially attracted to the life-affirming interpretation of the cross which is offered by the contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSC in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us. Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” in Doris Donnelly (ed), Jesus. A Colloquium in the Holy Land. New York: Continuum, 2001. Pages 146-166.

I summarise and cite some of her key ideas here.

The [biblical] metaphor’s narrative focus on the cross, moreover, leads to the idea that death was the very purpose of Jesus’ life. He came to die; the script was already written before he stepped onto the world stage. This not only robs Jesus of his human freedom, but it sacralizes suffering more than joy as an avenue to God. It tends to glorify violent death as somehow of value. (page 156)

Johnson argues that contemporary Jesus research contributes to redressing that imbalance in Western theology because it “assigns value to the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, not just his final hours; and it identifies the resurrection as the definitive action of God” in not allowing death to have the last word.

Herein lies the saving power of this event: death does not have the last word. The crucified one is not annihilated but brought to new life in the embrace of God, who remains faithful in surprising ways. (page 157)

Johnson describes Jesus’ death as what happened to the prophet sent by God when historical human actors make free decisions in particular contingent circumstances:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (page 158)

As Johnson expresses it, our view of salvation then moves its focus on to God rather than Jesus:

… the view of salvation fed by Jesus research shifts theological emphasis from a sole, violent act of atonement for sin before an offended God to an act of suffering solidarity that brings the compassionate presence of God into intimate contact with human misery, pain, and hopelessness. (page 158)

Johnson continues:

Part of the difficulty with the atonement/satisfaction metaphor, especially as it has played out in a juridical context, lies in the way it valorized suffering. Rather than being something to be resisted or remedied in light of God’s will for human well-being, suffering is seen as a good in itself or even an end necessary for God’s honor. Not only has this led to masochistic tendencies in piety … but … it has promoted acceptance of suffering resulting from injustice rather than energizing resistance. (page 159)

For Elizabeth Johnson we now have a richer vocabulary of salvation:

… rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (page 159)

Finally, the view of salvation fed by Jesus research allows the rich tapestry of metaphors found throughout the New Testament to be brought back into play. No one image and its accompanying theology can exhaust the experience and meaning of salvation through Christ. Taken together these metaphors correct distortions that rise when one alone is over emphasized … (page 160)


As already indicated, I find these suggestions by Elizabeth Johnson to be evocative of a new and better way of understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Without denying or repudiating traditional but non-binding formulations of the atonement, I find this a positive and life-giving way of making meaning out of the death of Jesus on the cross.

© 2018 Gregory C. Jenks






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  1. Dear Greg,

    Just wanted to add another “appreciative, positive and supportive” email to balance the others.

    Keep preaching.

    Kind regards

    Rob Ferguson


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