The Blood of God: Understanding the Atonement as a Work of the Trinity (A Reflection for Good Friday)

On this Good Friday, I would like to offer a reflection from Adam Johnson on the way in which we must understand the atonement accomplished in the crucifixion of Jesus as not merely a work of the Son, or of the Son over against the Father and the Spirit, but as a work of the Trinity as a whole. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that Christ was merely passive in bearing the wrath of the Father while the Father was the active one, pouring out his wrath on Christ. As we will see below, it is this kind of thinking that gives rise to such crass caricatures of the atonement as some kind of “divine child abuse”. The problem stems from an understanding of the atonement that stretches the doctrine of appropriations beyond its breaking point and runs roughshod over the important theological principle that opera ad extra sunt indivisa, that the persons of the Trinity are always, as in their divine essence, undivided in all of their works. I know this may sound overly esoteric, but its vital importance is underscored by Johnson when he writes (with reference to Karl Barth):

[W]e find the doctrine of God’s triunity energizing Barth’s account of the doctrine of reconciliation. For instance, the doctrine of appropriations enables Barth to attribute acts or qualities to specific persons of the Trinity, such as the wrath of the Father that is poured out upon the Son. Scripture permits, even forces, Barth to make such differentiations, speaking ‘in terms of [them] … with great seriousness, i.e., in such a way that we are in no position to remove them without exegetical wresting’ (CD I/1, 372). Along these lines, Barth writes that Jesus was obedient in choosing ‘to suffer the wrath of God in His own body and the fire of His love in His own soul’ (CD IV/1, 95), and affirms with the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘during the whole time of His life on earth Jesus … bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race’ (CD IV/1, 165). Even more boldly, he specifies that ‘God’ in such cases refers to the Father: the Son of God made flesh ‘stands under the wrath and judgment of God … He concedes that the Father is right in trinity-cruifixionthe will and action which leads Him to the cross’ and ‘the suffering of children chastised by their Father’ he there experienced (CD IV/1, 175).

The doctrine of appropriations never stands on its own, though: we must dialectically relate any conclusions made on these grounds to the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa, such that we do not conclude that the Father’s wrath of itself distinguishes the Father from the Son. Such a conclusion collapses into tritheism (and a non-Trinitarian understanding of the divine perfections), ultimately undermining the possibility of both revelation and atonement. To the contrary, Barth affirms the oneness of God’s acts and perfections. Just after the passage last quoted, Barth writes:

In Him God has entered in, breaking into that circulus vitiosus of the human plight, making His own not only the guilt of man but also his rejection and condemnation, giving Himself to bear the divinely righteous consequences of human sin, not merely affirming the divine sentence on man, but allowing it to be fulfilled on Himself. (CD IV/1, 175)

He thus demonstrates the necessary dialectical tension between the doctrine and rule we have been examining, affirming the work of Christ simply as a work of the one God. And nowhere is Barth’s commitment to the outworking of this dialectic more evident than in his account of Christ’s passion in the life of God, his modified affirmation of Patripassianism, the consideration of which brings us to our governing interest in the relationship between the doctrines of the Trinity and atonement.

This event of God’s giving of Himself in which the ‘divine sentence on man’ is ‘fulfilled on Himself’ is a Trinitarian event in which the sentence and judgement of the Father is fulfilled on the incarnate Son: in Jesus’ suffering and death. The imminent danger is that we too rigidly distinguish the Father and Son in this event, breaking apart the unity of God’s being. Eschewing this danger, Barth writes:

It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father. No, there is a particular veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians. This is that primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement … [He suffers] in the humiliation of His Son with a depth with which it never was or will be suffered by any man—apart from the One who is His Son … The fatherly fellow-suffering of God is the mystery, the basis, of the humiliation of His Son. (CD IV/2, 357; KD, 399)

Elsewhere, he adds:

With the eternal Son the eternal Father has also to bear what falls on the Son … In Jesus Christ God Himself, the God who is the one true God, the Father with the Son in the unity of the Spirit, has suffered what it befell this man to suffer to the bitter end … It is of this fellow-suffering of God Himself borne on earth and also in heaven to the greater glory of God and the supreme salvation of man; it is of the God who has not evaded, and on the very grounds of His deity could not evade, this suffering with and for the world, that the crucified man Jesus Christ speaks … He speaks … [of] the peace the price of which He Himself willed to pay and did pay in the person of this man, and therefore in the person of His own Son, and therefore in His fatherly heart. (CD IV/3.1, 414–15; KD, 478)

While Barth does not mention the ‘rule’ or ‘doctrine’ with which we are here concerned, they lie just below the surface, manifest in the dialectic of God Himself on the one hand and the incarnate Son and the Father on the other. The doctrine of appropriations affirms that we can and must distinguish between the Father and the incarnate Son, such that only the Son is incarnate and suffers death and abandonment of the Father. On the other hand, the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa demands that we step back, dwelling on the fact that Christ’s passion is the work of the one God, such that ‘the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is understood by him to be an event in God’s own life’, the life of the one God. This explains why, as Berthold Klappert notes, Barth is more inclined to speak of the suffering of God (theopaschitisch) than the New Testament emphasis on the suffering of Christ (hyiopaschitisch), interpreting the prevailing New Testament witness in light of the theopaschite statement in 2 Cor. 5:19. For this reason Barth refers to the ‘fellow-suffering of God Himself’ and subsequently distinguishes that suffering according to the various ‘ways of God’s being’, such that the Father, in fact, suffers with the Son in his ‘fatherly heart’ precisely by giving him up to this suffering.

According to Barth, as long as the Church properly balances the doctrine of appropriations and the rule opera ad extra, it has the right and responsibility to use provisional and temporary distinctions and appropriations (such as ‘the wrath of the Father’) in its theological discourse. This conclusion has a double edge in relation to current discussions. First, it forces critiques of the doctrine of the atonement based on a putatively fatal distinction between the Father and Son (typically referred to as a form of divine child abuse) to a greater depth of analysis, such that they must examine the arguments not only for appropriations (which, as we have seen, are one-sided even when warranted), but also for the balancing presence of the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa. Likewise, this conclusion demands that proponents of traditional forms of the atonement be wary of concluding or giving unnecessary grounds for others to conclude that such appropriations finally and absolutely distinguish the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

Now some of this might seem like theological hair-splitting, but I am convinced that it is absolutely essential. At stake is nothing less than the certainty that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) and that the God redeemed his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Statements like these can sound shocking, and they should. God on the cross? God’s own blood? How could such a thing be possible? And yet it is the heart of the Christian gospel: had God not been in Christ in the fullness of his Trinitarian being reconciling the world to himself, then Good Friday would ultimately have no meaning for us. Countless people were crucified on Roman crosses; so what would make the execution of one more Jew from Nazareth any different? Or, even if Jesus were the Son of God in the flesh but in a manner separate from the Father, then how could we ever know that what he did on the cross opens a window into the very heart of the Father’s infinite love? Apart from implying a heretical tritheism, inserting a wedge between the Son and the Father in the atonement makes it seem as though the latter was merely inflicting wrath on the former and only gave approval of that sacrifice after seeing Christ’s perfect obedience.

But surely this is not good news; this tells us of a wrathful God hidden and obscured behind the back of the crucified Son. Certainly there is a pouring out of wrath, but as Johnson emphasizes, it is a pouring out of wrath that falls within the trinitarian life of God himself. That is to say, the pouring out of divine wrath on the cross was, in fact, the greatest manifestation of the divine love, for it involved nothing less than God himself taking upon our lost and damned condition and extinguishing the flames of judgment against our sin.The cross is not the Father against the Son, but the Father with the Son (and the Spirit!) against sin. Surely this could never be called “divine child abuse”! It can only be called what it is: the incomprehensible and boundless love of God for us sinners, so vast and deep that it will stop at nothing, not even at death, to rescue and reconcile us. This indeed ample reason to rejoice this Good Friday!

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[1] Adam J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.80-83.

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This entry was posted in Atonement, Doctrine of God, Gospel, Judgment of God, Karl Barth, Love of God, Seasonal, Soteriology, Trinity. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Blood of God: Understanding the Atonement as a Work of the Trinity (A Reflection for Good Friday)

  1. Trevor says:

    That is an excellent and most important post.
    It changes everything when one sees the Father suffering too.
    When we read of Abraham and Isaac, it is witb great relief that we see the ram in the thicket. On Good Friday there is no rustling in the bushes.
    There is just the willing Son, full of faith and love, and the heart-rending love of the Father! Together they get the job done. In a “moment” of unimaginable abandonment that seems like for all eternity.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome Trevor! Indeed it does change everything. When we begin to grasp that God pledged his entire being for us and our salvation without holding anything back, we can never think of God in the same way again!

      Like

  2. Excellent! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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