The Cross: Is God More Infantile than Us?

Jason Micheli —  March 14, 2014 — 17 Comments

imagesHerbert McCabe was a 20th century theologian who deserves to be rediscovered. McCabe was a Dominican who brought an Irishman’s clear, vibrant prose to the Church’s greatest of teachers: Thomas Aquinas.

Here’s an excerpt on the atonement:


What does the death of Jesus have to do with us? Why is it important to us?

One such answer, which has been very influential in the past, is that by his death Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world. The idea, I’m sure you will remember, is that sin had offended God and since God himself is infinite such an offense has a kind of infinity about it. It was not within our power to restore the balance of justice by any recompense we could pay to God.

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin.

This seems to be based on the idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘to pay his debt to society,’ as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it criminals or to Christ.

I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there…It is impossible to see Christ hanging on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others.

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

As St Thomas says, satisfactio really means restitution or ‘paying damages.’ Unknown

It is indeed true that we could not afford to pay damages to God, but it is also true that such payment could not be needed for plainly God cannot be damaged by my sin.

Jason Micheli


17 responses to The Cross: Is God More Infantile than Us?

  1. You quoted McCabe in reference to your Advent series of blog posts, with which I strenuously disagreed. Then, as now, we have to contend with what the Bible says. McCabe speaks of God’s being “infantile” if humanity’s sin has offended divine justice. God is unharmed or unaffected (or something) by human sin. (I await your appeal to impassibility.) Then why all this talk of God’s wrath in Romans 1 and elsewhere in the New Testament? What does God have to be righteously angry about? Why do we have a God throughout scripture that punishes sin—by all sorts of death and destruction? Is that not “infantile” on God’s part?

    How does anything redemptive come out of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? For that matter, what kind of sense does the sacrificial system of the Old Testament make to McCabe (or you)?

    I could go on, but you know as well as I that penal substitution has been badly caricatured in our day. And so it is here: “If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.”

    Where to start? It isn’t that some bloodthirsty father needs to watch his son get tortured before he’ll forgive us (as I’m sure you know). It’s that out of love God himself chooses suffering and death on the cross in order to reconcile us to God.

    Do you not give any credit to so many other Christian thinkers who would disagree with either what you or McCabe have written? I could include Wesley in that, but I don’t sense that he carries much weight with you. What about N.T. Wright? You can find his lengthy essay endorsing penal substitution on the web.

  2. Jason – If you would like your readers to consider a different view of atonement, in addition to telling us what it is not, please complete the argument by telling us what it is from the perspective of McCabe and/or you, while interacting with the relevant verses in the Bible which seem to support penal substitution atonement theory. Otherwise, you are asking us to either abandon the authority of scripture or you are asking us to judge God’s justice and wisdom for ourselves.

    • Fair point…I didn’t have time or the stamina to type more of McCabe’s argument. I will and will probably incorporate into a sermon this Lent. In a nutshell he simply recaps Aquinas’ argument that the Son, as the only truly human person among us, lives his life as a supreme expression of love to the Father. Such love, given the world we’ve created, will meet with the Cross every time. It’s in that sense that Jesus ‘had’ to die.
      I don’t have a problem with substitutionary language. I do think penal substitution (like most atonement theories) works only in a figurative, metaphorical sense but too often it’s asked to do more than that, even replacing Lordship of Christ as the gospel message.

      • Thank you for the follow up. Keep challenging us.

        • No problem. Thanks for the interest! Bottom line, I think it’s important for Christians to keep mindful that every understanding of the atonement is partial. Not to mention that how we divine the problem (sin, injustice, systemic evil etc) determines how interpret what is the solution.

          While it’s true that the Trinity keeps the Cross from being ‘divine child abuse’ I think McCabe, like Aquinas, wants to make sure that the Cross, as an act of the Trinity, is nonetheless consistent with the character of God revealed to us Christ.

          • Having not read Aquinas on atonement I can’t comment except to say that, if you’re right, he’s saying that the cross is incidental to Jesus’ mission. I know Schleiermacher believed that; I’m surprised Aquinas did. Nevertheless, my objection remains: how do we read Paul, for example, and come away with the impression that the cross is anything less than central to atonement.

            What does Paul mean, for example, in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin…”? Or what about Jesus’ self-understanding of giving his life as a ransom for many?

            As for the cross’s being consistent with God’s character, I can’t imagine anything more loving than Christ, among other things, bearing the penalty our sins deserve.

            Finally, what about God’s wrath? What does that mean to you? How do you interpret that in light of God’s character as revealed in and through Jesus?

          • McCabe’s no liberal. Rather than incidental, the Cross (the Son’s full love) and Easter (the Father’s vindication) is central. McCabe even labels the crucifixion the actual original sin, hyperbole but powerful. I think there’s a place to talk about wrath, and will later, but too often ‘penal’ is projected onto texts (like 2 Cor) that I don’t think necessarily intend to convey it. The ‘ransom’ passages in Mark and Matthew are Passover references and about captivity and liberation not guilt.

  3. My reason for mentioning the “ransom” passages was to locate the central part of the atoning work on the cross—through Christs’s death.

  4. Jason, though it appears many don’t appreciate this passage, I for one commend your courage to continue to offer up challenging fare.

    The real issue seems to me to be that to think theologically is hard for folk who are worshippers of the Bible. As a former minister, I found it theologically incoherent to even say something like, “Jesus came to save us from our sins.” because that puts sin as the controlling variable thus making God in service of sin… and further, making the Incarnation a heteronomous act. I refuse to put humanity at the center of the story, with God in Christ in our employ. Rather, the Incarnation was the revelation of an overflowing love of God. In that love, symptomatically, as a fall out from that love, humanity was saved from sin through the death, resurrection and accession of Jesus Christ. The Word of God is Jesus Christ and the Bible is a witness (either prospectively or retrospectively) to Him. So, sure, the Bible will talk about what it means to say that “we were bought with a price” but that is part of a bigger story of God reconciling the world to Himself, not just me or you. Thanks again.

    • McCabe likes to say the truest thing in scripture is Paul’s comment that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Especially when it comes to the cross, we’re grasping at best at a deep mystery. I don’t dismiss a proper category for wrath I just think it all other metaphors have to be in submission to the identity of God revealed in Jesus. I don’t accept the progressive revelation of process theology, but I do think it appropriate to hold something like progressive realization where God’s wrath in the OT reflects Israel’s experience of God rather than God’s actual nature- how Brian Zahnd likes to say: ‘God’s always been like Jesus, there’s never been a time when God wasn’t like Jesus. We haven’t always known God is like Jesus but now we do.’

    • “Worshipers of the Bible”? Nice, J.M. Thanks for that.

      The suggestion that doing the work of theology means disregarding or minimizing so much of what the Bible actually says about God and Jesus would be laughable if it weren’t potentially tragic. Our Lord Jesus isn’t simply this nice guy who talks about how God loves us just the way we are. He reveals God’s love—but hell, judgment, and wrath are consequences of that love, as well. The very words of Jesus on these subjects are disconcerting, to say the least.

      Not that I’ve read much of Aquinas, and I’m sure as a Protestant I’d find much to disagree with, but I’m quite certain he never thought that theology was separable from being a good student of the Bible. I’m sure by your standards, J.M., he also “worshiped the Bible.” So I’m in good company.

      • Well, my apologies Brent if I offended. I know my Bible pretty well, having learned Geek and Hebrew and being taught at the undergrad level in English Bible and at seminary… you get the idea. I don’t want to devolve away from the original post, but it seems clear that there is no such thing as a direct, unmediated apprehension of God. We read and apprehend the Scriptures through theological eyes. Some eyes are focused on sin. That’s real. That’s a problem for sure. Some are focused on grace. That’s real…. and that seems to trump sin in a big way.

        I put a stumbling block in front of you, and my bad for that (Rom 12) but as I look over just the Pauline texts, “wrath” as a theme is nearly nonexistent (maybe a dozen mentions), so I guess when I’m looking at the overall gospel, wrath just isn’t on my radar, but maybe I need to hear you more clearly…

        • I don’t disagree that “grace trumps sin in a big way,” but I would strongly disagree with Rev. Micheli (and I have) who argues that saving us from sin isn’t the primary reason that God came to us in Christ. It’s not either/or, either sin or grace, it’s both/and.

          If I’m wrong on this point, and I’ve misread scripture, God knows I’m in good company!

          For more on this topic, I’d recommend you read Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace.”

          • Brent, I think if you read my initial post and read past the distracting pejorative, you will see that is exactly what I said. It is both/and, yes, but there is first a precipitating cause of the Incarnation itself and that cause was not to come and rescue us but rather to reveal God’s self in the overflowing love that is Jesus Christ. Now in that revelation, Jesus “goes into the Far Country” where “the Judge Elects Himself to be Judged”. But there is no Cross; no Judgment, without the journey of love into our country by God Incarnate. This is the corrective to the gospel that puts sin and individual people at the center of the story. It is merely corrective of a theological mistake, not an elimination of an essential, theological reality, The Cross.

            From Volf, as you advised:

            “If we believe rightly in Jesus Christ who unconditionally embraced us, the godless perpetrators, our hearts will be open to receive others, even enemies, and our eyes will be open to see from their perspective. In Letters and Papers from Prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that faith enables us to take “distance” from our own immediacy and take into ourselves the tension-filled polyphony of life, instead of pressing life to “a single dimension.” Through faith, he claimed, “we take in a sense God and the whole world into ourselves” (Bonhoeffer 1966, 209). Bonhoeffer had in mind mainly the resources faith provides for living in extreme situations, such as the prison from which he wrote, in which people tend to be ruled by the immediacy of the pressing needs or scarce occasions for joy. But the ability to take God and the world into ourselves generated by faith is equally significant in situations of conflict. They too tend to enslave people in the exclusive commitment to “our cause.” The faith in Jesus Christ, who made our cause his cause, frees us from pursuing our interests only, and creates in us the space for the interests of others. We are ready to perceive justice where we previously saw only injustice—if indeed the cause of the others is just.”

            I think this is applicable to our theological dialogue.

  5. I disagree with your first paragraph. I spent a few blog posts responding to Rev. Micheli’s series “Why Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross.” If you want, Google “Christmas needs the cross” and “Brent White” and you can read my responses.

    • Brent,

      Well, you didn’t respond to the theological points (at all) and you didn’t respond to the Volf passage and so I’ll hope that you find a community of faith that… well, I guess… where The Cross and God’s wrath and penal substitution and human sin controlling the narrative will dominate the airwaves. There are many communities of faith with that predilection.

      Volf says it best, in Captive to the Word of God, “For today’s readers are not outside the events the Bible is narrating, acquiescing to being pulled or resisting being pulled into those events by the power of the narrative. The readers — whether Christian or not, whether named as addressees or not — are in these events.”

      Some people are drawn to the notion of punishment, sin and judgement and therefore The Cross. I am drawn, theologically, elsewhere, to grace, love, forgiveness and grace… and therefore The Resurrection. So be it.

      Happy Easter,

      • As I said, I responded at length to the viewpoint expressed in your comment on my own blog last December, when Rev. Micheli was citing McCabe and talking about how God didn’t become incarnate in order to save us. You can Google search “Christmas needs the cross Brent White” and find my lengthy responses there.

        Or maybe I misunderstand what you’re saying completely.

        As for your quote from Volf, I didn’t know what point you were making with it, and I felt like you were hiding a “gotcha” in there, so I didn’t respond. My reference to “Exclusion and Embrace” is that he does a nice job talking about God’s wrath and judgment and sin.

        As for my “predilection” toward “punishment, sin, and judgment,” if that’s how you interpret it, so be it. Grace is meaningless if we fail to understand for what reason God extends grace in the first place. I could proof-text, but it seems to me that Paul was also drawn to the cross. But that’s an argument from the Bible, of course. Any theology that is relevant, must be centered on scripture, as I told Rev. Micheli in my many responses to his series of posts.

        As for finding some community of faith that will share my predilection, l’m a United Methodist pastor, an elder in full connection, who has an M.Div. from Dallas Theological… sorry, Candler. So you see there’s no hope for me.

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