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Whatever became of the cross?

Whatever became of the cross? April 22, 2011

Today is Good Friday and an appropriate time to return to a theme I’ve dealt with before here–the gradual disappearance of the cross in American Christianity (including among evangelicals).

I can understand theologically liberal Protestants wanting to downplay the cross as it is offensive to modern sensibilities and liberal theology is “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity.”  The cross, properly, biblically understood and not reduced to a martyrdom, is scandalous.  But it is a scandal central to the gospel and therefore to Christianity.  I am not sure one can find Christianity where the cross is absent or diminished in importance.

Of course, I’m not talking about the symbol of the cross even though I do think its disappearance in Christian worship spaces is a symptom of the gradual disappearance of the preaching of the cross.  What I am talking about is the gradual disappearance of singing, preaching, talking about the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

Many years ago fundamentalists criticized others, including many so-called “neo-evangelicals,” for downplaying the word “blood” in Christian language.  In reaction, some fundamentalists went to extremes.  I remember one book by a fundamentalist called “The Chemistry of the Blood.”  It’s been years since I read it, but I recall even then, still in my fundamentalist mindest, I found its argument about the special nature of the physical blood of Jesus odd.

I’m not calling for more of what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “slaughterhouse religion”–with vivid and even gory talk and depictions of Jesus’ torture and execution.  I didn’t even go see or later watch the movie; I think it’s possible to get carried away with that.

What I am decrying is the gradual tendency for even evangelicals to be forgetful of Jesus’ death as the atoning sacrifice for humanity’s sinfulness and for our individual sins.  I have attended numerous evangelical churches of different denominational persuasions and noticed this trend over the years.  Many sermons center around problem solving in the Christian life, comfort of the afflicted, following Jesus’ example of love (without reference to the cross!), etc.  Few songs sung really focus on the death of Christ.

Excuse me while I ride my hobby  horse and grind my axe a little here.  A major problem with so-called “Praise and Worship” music is a general lack of reference to the cross and the atonement.  There are, of course, exceptions.

Mark Noll and David Bebbington have rightly, I judge, identified four historical hallmarks of evangelical faith: biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, activism.  I see three of those thriving among evangelicals, but where is crucicentrism?

I’m fully aware of how this is going to sound to my younger readers, but here goes anyway.  When I was growing up in the thick of evanglicalism the cross played a very significant role in our worship and devotion.  For example, it was common then (and before) for evanglical pastors to preach a sermon on the cross at every communion service (and those were once monthly).  The communion ceremony was surrounded with and accompanied by singing of songs like “Oh, the blood of Jesus (It washes white as snow)” and “At the cross (where I first saw the light),” and “In the cross (be my glory ever)” and “At calvary (mercy there was great and grace was free).” 

I’m not talking about a slight shift of emphasis.  I’m talking about what sometimes seems to me a wholly different evangelical Christianity.  I hardly recognize today’s evangelicalism as the evangelicalism I grew up in.  And it’s not a difference related to the inerrancy of the Bible or the metaphysical attributes of God or the possible salvation of the unevangelized.  These are controversies that have captured the imaginations of evangelicals.  In the meantime, as we argue and fight over those, the cross has slipped away into virtual obscurity in our singing, preaching and talking.

I will take the risk of putting forth a theory here.  It seems likely to me that whenever and wherever and to the extent that the objective view of the atonement (viz., that the death of Christ reconciled God to the world as much as the world to God) diminishes, the cross will diminish in importance for worship and piety.  A subjective theory of the atonement will not do; it cannot sustain long term, profound commitment to the gospel of the death of Jesus Christ as our salvation.

Some contemporary Christians, including some evangelicals, worry that the preaching of the cross in any traditional sense (viz., objective) risks sanctioning child abuse.  That seems to me to be utter nonsense because it completely ignores the Trinity in the background of objective atonement.  No theologian defending objective atonement has ever regarded the atonement as anything other than God the Son’s voluntary suffering and death.  Even Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory and the Puritans’ Penal Substitution Theories pictured it that way and NOT as God simply taking out his anger on an innocent person against his will.

On this Good Friday I call on evangelicals especially to return to their roots and rediscover the good news of the cross as God’s way of reconciling himself to a sinful, rebellious world as well as God’s way of drawing us to himself.


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