The Fourth Article – The Passion of Christ, the Salvation of Man

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Friday, March 31, 2023

The Fourth Article – The Passion of Christ, the Salvation of Man

In our examination of the third Article of the Christian Creed we noted that grammatically it was the beginning of a long relative clause. In the Latin of the Apostles’ Creed the relative clause includes the third through seventh Articles. This is not reflected in the English translation in the Book of Common Prayer which inserts a sentence break after the fourth Article. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed the third Article begins with a definite article that functions in this context as a relative pronoun and is the subject of all the Articles from the third through the seventh. In the conciliar Creed this is not a subordinate clause within the sentence that starts in the second Article in the Greek, however, because it has a sentence break at the end of the second. Interestingly, here the English translation eliminates the sentence break. These punctuation variations do not affect the meaning of the Creed. Whether it is a subordinate relative clause, a separate sentence, or even broken into several sentences, everything from the Incarnation in the third Article to the Second Coming in the seventh is affirmed about Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God.

We also observed that the conciliar Creed includes a declaration of the end that motivated the Son of God to come down from Heaven, become Incarnate as a Man, and do all that is affirmed of Him in these Articles. This is the clause rendered in English as “for us men and for our salvation” found immediately after the definite article/relative pronoun. As we saw, this statement was well placed in the third Article about the Incarnation because it was the Incarnation that made possible everything else the Son of God did for our salvation. Now we shall look at the fourth Article which speaks of how the Incarnate Christ accomplished our salvation.

Compared to the other Articles we have seen there is very little difference between two versions of the Creed. The Latin of the Apostles’ Creed is passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus which in the English of the Book of Common Prayer is “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” The Greek of the conciliar Creed is Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα which in English is “and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried”. “Suffered” and “crucified” switch places in the two Creeds, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan specifies that He was crucified “for us” whereas the Apostles’ spells us out that He “died”, otherwise the only difference is that in the conciliar Creed each thing that is affirmed of Christ is joined to the others in the Article by a copula while in the Apostles’ they are put in a list and separated by commas with only one copula. Passus and its Greek equivalent and cognate παθόντα which both mean “he suffered” are the source of the word “Passion” which we use to designate all the suffering Jesus Christ submitted to for our sake. (1)

Another noticeable contrast between this Article and those which preceded it is the absence of precise language chosen to avoid specific errors. With one exception it affirms merely the basic historical facts of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, His death and His burial. The exception is the words “for us” in the Nicene Creed. These words are an assertion of the soteriological significance of these events but the most basic and simple such assertion possible. That God gave His Son to be our Saviour, that He saved us by dying for us, and that therefore His death was for us, is something upon which all Christians are in agreement. It is over how Christ’s death accomplished this that there has been disagreement. The New Testament is not silent on this question, but it uses many different types of language and imagery to explain Christ’s saving work. The language of redemption depicts Christ’s death as a price paid to liberate man from slavery, that is to say, slavery to sin, death and the devil. The language of sacrifice declares Christ’s death to be the final and effective sacrifice to which all the sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed. The language of reconciliation speaks of Christ’s death as bringing God and man, separated by man’s sin, back into harmony. The language of satisfaction depicts Christ’s death as a propitiation or expiation that appeases God for the offence that is man’s sin. The language of substitution speaks of Christ as taking our sins upon Himself and bearing them in our place. The New Testament uses each of these languages and all of this different imagery tells us that the answer to the question of how Christ’s death saved us is multifaceted. It is good, therefore, that in the Creed, the basic confession of the Christian faith, the what of Christ’s death for us is affirmed without commentary as to the how.

This was probably not intentional on the part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Fathers. At the time significant controversy over what we now call the theory or model of the Atonement was still centuries away. Indeed, the history of theological debate over this matter is often thought to be divided into two periods, pre-Anselm and post-Anselm. Anselm was the thirty-sixth Archbishop of Canterbury who held the See from 1093 to 1109 AD, shortly after both the Great Schism between the Western and the Eastern Churches and the passing of the English throne to the Norman dynasty of William the Conqueror. About five years into his term in the Archbishop’s office, on the eve of the transition from the eleventh to the twelfth centuries he completed a work entitled Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?). In this work, Anselm challenged what he believed to have been the main way in which the Atonement had been understood prior to him, i.e., the ransom model. According to this model, Christ’s death was a ransom price paid by God to purchase the liberation of man from the bondage to sin, death, and the devil into which he had fallen in the Garden. The extent to which this model was accepted before Anselm is debatable. It is certainly found in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who lived in the third century. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century, the century that produced the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, notably opposed it. Anselm’s objection to this model was that it made the death of Christ into a payment God made to Satan and thus suggested that the problem to which the Atonement was the solution was that someone, either us or God, owed a debt to Satan. Sin is indeed depicted as a debt in the New Testament but the debt is owed by man to God not by anyone to Satan. Anselm, who lived in feudal times, understood this to be a debt of honour. Man had offended God’s honour by sinning and thus owed Him satisfaction. . By dying for us, Christ satisfied God’s honour, and so won for us reconciliation and forgiveness. This is called the satisfaction model of the Atonement. Since the understanding of the Atonement that has prevailed in the Roman Catholic Communion since Scholasticism has been Anselm’s model as interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas, and the penal substitutionary model of the Protestant Reformation is Anselm’s model translated by John Calvin, a trained lawyer, from the honour language of feudal society to the legal language of contract society, (2) Anselm’s model can be said have dominated Western Christianity ever since. The pre-Anselmic understanding of the Atonement remains the understanding in Eastern Christianity which broke Communion with Western Christianity a few decades prior to Anselm. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Eastern view as being predominately the ransom model. The Eastern understanding includes the ransom model – it is found in their Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great – but other understandings of the Atonement are included elsewhere in the Eastern liturgy.

None of these models or theories are affirmed in the Creed – neither are any of them denied or rejected. About a century ago a Swedish Lutheran bishop and theologian named Gustaf Aulén wrote a short influential book in which he argued that before Anselm the Church held to what he called the “classic view” of the Atonement which he claimed was taught in the Bible, by the Church Fathers and by Dr. Martin Luther. This view has come to be called “Christus Victor”, which was also the title of Aulén’s book, and it basically is that the Atonement was a strategic military victory by Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil which brought about the liberation of those whom these forces of evil had held captive. Of all the models that have been proposed this is the closest to being one that can claim to be affirmed in the Creed but this is only because it is not what Aulén purported it to be, an explanation of how Christ’s death saved us, but rather a re-wording of the assertion of the fact that it does. Everyone who affirms the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds will affirm that in His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ triumphed over sin, death, and the devil (3) and set mankind free. This includes, however, all those who think of the Atonement primarily as a ransom, as well as those who think of it primarily as satisfaction or substitution. The weakness of Aulén’s book was that he treated his “classic view” as mutually exclusive with what he called the “Latin view” i.e., Anselm’s satisfaction and Calvin’s penal substitution models. These are not mutually exclusive, and in his attempt to prove that they were, Aulén made claims which very much conflicted with Nicene orthodoxy. He treated the Law as one of the enemies that needed to be defeated alongside Satan and sin in flat contradiction to St. Paul in the epistle to the Romans. He argued that the satisfaction model made the Atonement into an act of man directed towards God rather than an act of God directed towards man, an argument that had both Nestorian and Docetist implications.

Indeed, the most common objections to the satisfaction and substitution models that have been raised over the last century have rested upon assumptions that conflict with Nicene orthodoxy. Think, for example, of the popular complaint that these explanations of the Atonement amount to “cosmic child abuse”. Nicene orthodoxy is that Jesus Christ is God Who became a Man and Who is thus both God and Man. Those who regard the substitutionary model of Atonement as speaking of a God Who is guilty of “cosmic child abuse” implicitly assume Jesus Christ to be neither God nor Man. For if Jesus Christ is what the Nicene Creed says He is, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, being of one substance with the Father” then the satisfactory and substitutionary model of the Atonement does not tell the story of a God Who refused to forgive men their sins unless an Innocent third party unjustly suffered instead but the story of a God, rightly offended by sin, Who becomes a man in order that He might Himself pay the penalty of sin on behalf of those who offended Him.

The late Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware suggested a number of helpful questions for evaluating theories of the Atonement. The first of these was “Does it envision a change in God or us?” Since the problem for which Christ’s death is the solution is in us, sin, rather than in God, a sound understanding of the Atonement requires that change us rather than God. This might seem to be the point where Anselm’s model and those derived from it fail the test but this is only the case if the language of analogy that we use to speak of God is taken far more literally than it was ever intended to be. If we take the language of Christ’s death as a propitiatory sacrifice that appeases God by satisfying His wrath, language which is used in the Scriptures themselves, at its most literal, then we will have a theory in which the Atonement works by effecting a change in God. God is angry at us because of our sin, Christ’s death takes care of that, so that God is no longer angry at us anymore. What we need to recognize is that while wrath or anger in us is a passion that stirs up in response to things other people do this is not what the wrath or anger of God is like. When the Scriptures speak of the wrath of God they use the human passion as an analogy to speak of how God in His holiness, righteousness, and justice always looks upon sin. It is not something that our sin stirs up in God, it is not an emotion or a passion, it is how God in His unchangeable goodness sees sin. Therefore, when we speak of Christ’s death as appeasing God’s wrath, this too is analogous language. We do not mean that Christ’s death effects a change in God so that His wrath is gone because that would mean that the immutable holiness, justice, and righteousness of God which reject and punish sin are gone, which would mean that God becomes less than perfectly Good, and this cannot be. The language of appeasing God’s wrath is as analogous as the language of God’s wrath and it means that that which does the appeasing, Christ’s death, removes from us that which is the object of God’s wrath, our sin. As long as we remember that the analogies and metaphors that we use to explain God in human terms have a point beyond which their literalness should not be pushed lest they cease to be helpful then there ought to be no problem with our using the various models – ransom, sacrifice, satisfaction, substitution, etc. – drawn from the very words of the New Testament to explain how God by becoming a Man and dying for us, saved us from the bondage of sin and death.

When it comes to confessing our faith in the Creed, however, it is sufficient that we confess the fact that Christ “suffered (for us) under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”.

(1) This is why oratorios in which the text of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion are set to music are called Passions (J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and St. John’s Passion are examples), plays in which these events are acted out are called Passion plays, and Mel Gibson titled his film depicting the events of Good Friday The Passion of the Christ.

(2) In Anselm’s model it was God’s honour that was offended by sin. In John Calvin’s model it was God’s justice. In both versions of this model the Atonement works by satisfying God. In Anselm’s model God, having been satisfied by Christ’s Atonement, forgiveness man rather than punishing man for offending Him. In Calvin’s model God’s justice is satisfied because Christ took the punishment due man on man’s behalf. Otherwise they are the same basic concept. Contrary to what is often asserted against the Protestant model the idea of the Atonement as Christ taking man’s punishment for him was not invented new in the sixteenth century. The language of substitution is found in the New Testament – St. Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, St. Peter uses it in 1 Peter 2:24 – and even in the Old in Isaiah 53:6, as well as in all the most important Church Fathers. Where Calvin’s model is susceptible to the charge of novelty is its explanation of substitution in strictly legal terms. By contrast, none of the New Testament or Patristic references to Christ taking our punishment for us place it in the context of a cold, formal, legal transaction. St. Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians, for example, places it in the context of reconciliation.

(3) Except perhaps those liberals who try to disguise their liberalism by limiting it to truths not affirmed in the Creeds. The Creeds are not intended to be exhaustive and comprehensive statements of all Christian truth. Rev. Austin Farrer explained well the difference between the sort of truths that made it into the Creeds and those that did not: “Christians profess a creedal belief in God and resurrection to eternal life. They do not profess such belief in the devil or in everlasting torment. The doctrine of hell has certainly found a place in authoritative statements of Christian teaching; it has never formed part of a creed properly so called (the Athanasian creed is not a creed, whatever it may be). Try the experiment of tacking on to the Apostles Creed or the Nicene ‘and in one devil, tempter and enemy of souls; and in damnation to hell everlasting.’ Now say the whole creed and see what it feels like. I can promise you it will feel pretty queer; and the queerness will be due to a swapping of horses in midstream; you jump from one act of belief to a different sort of act, when you pass from the God-and-heaven clauses to the devil-and-hell clauses. The belief which is expressed by creedal profession is a laying hold on the objects of belief; or still more, perhaps, a laying of ourselves open to be laid hold of by them. But there is no question of our laying ourselves out to be laid hold of by hell or by Satan. That cannot be the object of the exercise. Christians may believe there is a hall. They do not believe in hell as they believe in heaven. For they do not put their faith in it.” (Saving Belief, 1964, pp.150-151). Liberalism, as the term is used in religion rather than politics, is the unbelief generated by Modern rationalistic philosophy, crept into Churches and sects, disguised as an updated form of belief. The classic example is the liberal who claims that he believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a sense, but that sense does not include Jesus’ body having been re-animated and leaving the tomb, thus the liberal’s “belief” is actually unbelief. A more subtle form of liberalism is the kind that is careful not to contradict or redefine the Creed like this, but which feels free to reject anything and everything not included by the Creed, and which more specifically throws out or disregards all the most negative truths of Christianity like the devil and the sinfulness of man. It would be difficult for someone who holds to this kind of liberalism to affirm the Christus Victor view of Christ’s saving work, however, because they have thrown out everything over which Christ could have been Victor. — Gerry T. Neal

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