I am currently writing a book on love, both God’s love and our love. In writing the first half of my book I have sought to deal with the cross. I do not know how you can talk about God’s love and not go to the cross. Every reader of the New Testament can readily see that the cross is central to the story of God’s love and redemption.
“Christ died for our sins” is central to the earliest confessions and is a bottom line teaching of the New Testament. But how we understand what happened on the cross, in terms of God’s saving us through the death of Christ, is another matter. Several theories of the atonement have been debated and embraced by various Christians over the last ten-plus centuries. (The early church also held a view and in general I do not fully agree with this view either as I shall show in my book.)
I have decided to make my way into this controversy, with fear and trembling in one way, precisely because I believe that we miss the love of the God by a focusing on a wrong view of substitution. I also believe that this “theory of the atonement” debate is just that, a debate about theory. More to come over time.
For now I have been thinking about how the Orthodox Church has a doctrine of salvation that includes the whole world, or the teaching of cosmology. Simply put the Orthodox do not treat the incarnation, the cross, and resurrection as separate events when explaining our salvation. I have concluded that this approach has to be correct because it fills in some holes in our Western way of thinking that is too individualistic. It also challenges the tendency in the West to center on legal categories when it seeks to explain the cross and God’s love.
In Orthodoxy the weekly liturgical emphasis is not just on the cross but on the whole incarnation-cross-resurrection–ascension theme and how they are an unseparated reality for the salvation of all of God’s people. The implications are, to put this mildly, huge. For starters, a ”theology of the cross” reductionism takes away from the radical implications of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension as (also) central to our salvation. The result, for many evangelicals, is an almost totalizing stress upon salvation as coming to us via the cross (once and for all) in order to “get saved.” The reality is that we come again and again to God’s whole salvation experience by coming again-and-again to Jesus – God incarnate, loving, dying, rising and ascending to intercede for us at the Father’s right hand. (We are “being saved” as the New Testament clearly says.) This leads to the eschatological glorification of the entire cosmos (not simply to saving persons). This view of cosmic salvation has massive implications for day-to-day living if you believe in the eternal love of the Triune God.
What interests me, as a Reformed minister and theologian, is that there has always been a healthy interest in these themes, and how they intersect as a whole, in the Reformed tradition. In nineteenth century America, for one example, there was a type of Reformed thinking that was called “Mercersburg Theology.” It was taught by two prominent theologians by the name of John Williamson Nevin and Phillip Schaff. Serious traces of Orthodox theology are present in both these great theologians, reminding me that what goes around comes around. To not seriously read the tradition that we are within, by reading it whole, we often miss a great deal.