by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Alpril 11, 1990, p. 363, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
It was God’s eternal plan to make us what he himself is.
". . . This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men"
Here is a text to try our modern Christian souls. It appears to be on a collision course with the best of our liberal values. God is up to his eyes in the blood of Jesus! God in league with "lawless men"! How can any Christian argue with much conviction against capital punishment if God effects his purpose in such an unwaveringly bloody way? On what basis can we work for world peace if God required such a violent resolution of the conflict between creatures and himself?
Imagine hearing this text for the first time, uninsulated from its chilling effect by a lifetime of such language in church. It was not without reason that 19th-century liberal theologians revolted en mass against the orthodox Anselmian doctrine of atonement that taught that the only ultimately compelling reason for Christ’s coming was that he might suffer his substitutionary, sacrificial, expiating, even propitiating death.
How, many 19th-century Christians wondered, could Christendom hope to break with the superstitious, medieval past and ground civilization on justice and understanding unless it denied God’s implication in Jesus’ cruel death? Could a humanity capable of producing modern civilization be so deeply depraved that it could be set right only through such a primitive sacrificial schema?
Yet the soteriological necessity of Christ’s cross remains pivotal to the whole New Testament. The New Testament preserves nothing of any earlier understanding. We can’t attribute any serious authority at all to the New Testament unless we are willing to come to terms with the centrality of this text.
It was inconceivable to Luke that Peter or any primitive Christian could have -- postresurrection and post-Pentecost -- viewed the cross as a mere accident of history. Writing two or three decades earlier, Paul witnesses to his belief that Jesus’ death was foreordained: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (I Cor. 15:3b) . Mark, the earliest gospel, is dominated by a sense of the necessity of Christ’s suffering. The Acts text merely sounds this New Testament theme with a particularly startling frankness.
With the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe, we may well see a rekindling in the West of the liberal myth of progress -- to the extent that it ever died in the American heart. After all, it took two wars, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the H-bomb and Vietnam, among other events, to dampen our optimism sufficiently to allow for a theological reconsideration of primitive ideas such as sin. In neo-orthodoxy’s heyday there was even a certain enthusiasm for sin-talk and an openness to the centrality of the cross. However, not even the hoariest neoorthodox recalcitrant would wish to debunk the re-emergent optimism at the price of re-enacting the horrors of our century.
Surely there are other ways ‘to talk about sin and redemption without pointing to wars, genocide and poverty with a triumphant "I told you so." We can’t sell even ourselves on God’s participation in the cross of Christ by resorting to what Bonhoeffer called "clerical tricks" -- stressing the wretchedness of the human condition so that people will be driven to resort to the church’s theological nostrums.
This is not to minimize the reality of sin or tragedy, nor is it to buy into some new utopian delusion. However, the brokenness we experience (earlier generations called it original sin) ought not to be the cutting edge of the church’s proclamation. The good news is not that we are both mortal and flawed -- this announcement is neither good nor is it news; the good news is that in the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ, God has taken our humanity up into himself and thereby has ordained and determined to participate in humanity (even becoming sin on our behalf [I Cor. 5:21]) , just as surely as he intends us to participate in his own being. It was God’s eternal plan to make us what he himself is.
This does not entail determinism. The foreknowledge in the "divine plan" lay in the moral inevitabilities of the human situation. Given the alienation that exists between God and ourselves and our self-deification, we could not but slay him whom the Father sent. Judas was not an automaton; he chose to betray Jesus, just as the hour, site and method of execution were of human choosing. However, the determination to put an end to our alienation by taking it up into his very being through the inescapable suffering of his son was of God’s own choosing.
Thus, God simply will not accept our self-assessment as sinners enthralled by mortality and death. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates finally the folly of our trying to ascribe ultimacy to sin, mortality and death. As the human parent looking through the eyes of love sees in the child a better possibility than could the stranger, so God sees us as better than we, as strangers to our own true being, can see ourselves. Unlike the human parent, God does not stand by helplessly as the child fails to realize its potential. Yet God does not enslave us in order to save us. God both has foreknowledge of his ultimate triumph and is intent on liberating his creatures. God’s triumph entails the true freedom of humanity.
If we hope to persuade people to live as lovers and not as brutes, we ought never to use human lawlessness and despair as a prolegomenon to the Christian faith. Rather we should talk, first and last, about God and God’s "definite plan and foreknowledge." For in the light of that plan we glimpse how the human race is better than it imagines, better than it can imagine.