On the matter of the Cross as a stark and fearful warning...

Out there in Anglican-land there are many salutary efforts to redouble our efforts to understand such things at the Thirty Nine Articles and the Atonement. Matt Kennedy, over at Stand Firm, wrote a longish answer to a short Article (number III) of the famous Thirty-nine. It is a mixed piece and wanders far from the one sentence given as a starter. Still, I have to give him credit for taking the whole matter on at all and am well aware that criticizing him is a lot easier than taking on the 39 myself. I am by the way not particularly interested in doing so at just this moment.

However I would be remiss not to point out one particular remark of his concerning the cross. (Highlighting mine.) I comment on it here rather than at Stand Firm because a fairly large number of its readers seem to think I am no longer a Christian and I don't particularly need more accusations of that sort at the moment. Matt said:

"But while this eternal blessing and benefit of the cross is commonly acknowledged, what is often forgotten is that the cross stands as a stark and fearful warning that God, in his justice, does not leave sin unpunished. The infinite cup of God’s wrath that the infinite God in Christ willingly drained to the dregs on the cross remains full, it is brimming with judgment, for those who are unwilling to repent, cry out, and seek refuge and salvation in the Son. "

I believe Matt mis-wrote: The cross stands as a stark and fearful warning that the State and any religion with which it is in cahoots does not leave any contrariness unpunished. I am under the impression that the cross is first and foremost an instrument of oppression whose power was taken from it by The One who would not let death be the final oppressive certainty. The Cross of Christ is never, never, never in itself a warning of God's intended punishment or God's general intentions to hold us accountable. To think otherwise is to condone crucifixion or its more modern equivalents as required by God for good governance.

It's 11 at night. I have had a difficult day, learned great things from good people, found limits to my own willingness to trust in the future, came through it and am at rest. I found the Cross a constant companion, but never a fearful warning.


  1. or, we can agree with the guy, and add the Calvinist and Barthian sequel: that God bears the punishment himself.

  2. It's brave of you to read through that article- I'm sad to say that the constant dripping sarcasm that SF seems to have throughout its member comments have made me stay away from it.

    You make a good and valid point, and one that I'd like to see addressed back at SF. If the cross was a warning of God's wrath to each and everyone, it would take away from the horrible, unjust torture that the cross truly is.

    For God to make the cross a rebuke, "If I do this to my Son, think of what could await you!" then I'd find Him much less worthy of praise than He is truly due. We are not only crucified with Him, but we live with Him as well. The message of the cross is resurrection and new life, not divine vengeance.

  3. I don't think that Matt miswrote. This is Calvinism redux.

    "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell."

    Jonathan Edwards-Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

  4. The Cross is never a fearful warning. It is always the reminder that love triumphs over all.

  5. And Matt calls himself "orthodox". I've never seen a LESS orthodox understanding of the cross than the Orombi-esque, fundamentalist, punitive, fear-laden, devoid-of-grace notion of the cross than his. I'm so glad that JESUS is my savior and not the likes of Matt. So much for at-one-ment.

  6. Mark,

    I certainly agree that the cross is, for believer, a sure and certain sign of God's love and redemption. But I disagree that the cross is "never, never, never" a sign of justice. In fact, in Romans three the cross of Christ is presented as the way that God is shown to be both "just" and the "justifier" of those who believe. His justice is revealed in that the cross reveals that he does not let human sin go unpunished (as Paul explicitly states earlier in the same chapter) and he is revealed as the justifier in the since that the cross removes the punishment, the punishment revealed in the cross, "of those who believe". For those who do not believe the punishment remains.


  7. anne kennedy...actually Matt. Matt, you once again present me with the delight in knowing you, even across the divide. Your response is careful and not at all grumpy (as was my post.) I stand corrected, not in the substance of my objection, but in the tone of my remarks.

    Hope your weekend brings a time of refreshment and peace to you and yours.

    I've changed the title..showing that an ol' bum can learn new tricks.

    Thank you for the note.

  8. God help us! But will s/he, if s/he's the Great Judge, who doles out punishment. I have no words except, "God is love".

  9. I grew up in a stark and fearful theological environment. Too much of the spiritual terrorism about me did not match up with what I saw of God in Christ.

    You are right to note that the cross was meant to be a stark and fearful warning by Rome that it would crush opposition. Jesus, as usual, goes about redefining things, upsetting them, reversing them. His message is "Father, forgive them," not: "this is what y'all deserve you vile, ungrateful sinners."

    Even if one grants more weight to the passing image of the cup of God's wrath than I am prepared to do (though I do not reject wrath altogether), one gannot posit that Christ drained it to the dregs and maintain that it remains full. If the cup keeps refilling, then Christ's sacrifice would not have accomplished much, and that strikes me as an awful slander on the Jesus I praise, adore, and rather fallibly follow.

  10. John 8:15

  11. Oh great, Prior! It's because of you that I have to keep a Bible next to my computer so I can look up these verses! Clearly my early childhood Baptist training did not help me here.

    But seriously, Thank you, Prior - "You judge by human standards; I judge no one." John 8:15


  12. Though I would agree with Grandmère Mimi that "God is love." I would disagree with the often implied idea that such love does not include punishment. I punish my kids for wrong actions not because I don't love them, or because I love doing so, but because I love them, want the best for them, and would be remiss in my responsibilities as a parent if I did not discipline them.

    While God does love us, part of that love is setting limits on what we should and should not do. The Ten Commandments, for instance, were not deleted by Jesus. I do not think a God that is simply cuddly is worth worshipping, much less following.

    As is said of Aslan (the Christ-figure in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia) "Of course he's not safe. He's not a tame lion. He's not safe, but he's good!" I worship and follow a good God, not a warm fuzzy one!

  13. Stark and unfearfilled:

    Just when does Matt+ expect to receive word about being made a bishop for the Nigerian/Ugandan Anglican Discipline Inquisition?

    There is a underlying reason for this madness...it's been clear from the start and it ain't nice.

    Leonardo Ricardo

  14. But is the punishment restorative or retributive? Does it contribute to positive life giving actions or does it bring down and destroy.

    If my child does wrong, I don't "punish" them. I guide them into seeing and understanding why it was wrong and help them to take steps to make things right. It takes a lot more time and effort to do it this way than say the time it takes for a spanking or a grounding or whatever it is that one uses to punish but the outcome is a more well rounded and morally conscious child. They are being good because they understand it is best not because they are afraid of punishment.

    You use Aslan as an example. Does Edmond get punished for the wrong he does? He is brought to see how it was wrong and given a chance to make right and in that he finds restoration and life.

    The cross is a sign of what humans can do if they don't heed God. We can destroy life itself. But it is also a message that God is the life giver and no matter what we do, the chance for life is always there. What is better devotion - obedience out of fear or following because of love received and returned? The cross is a sign that God is greater than anything humans can deal out. We can destroy but God can create and give life even out of our worst efforts. Does the cross call us into fear or does it call us into total love? Do we try harder and more willingly for fear or for love?

  15. Anne Marie,

    We are all creatures of God. We are not all by nature "children of God". In fact by nature we are according to St. Paul in Eph 2. "objects of wrath"

    So, no, not all punishment is restorative when we are dealing with unredeemed rebels.

    When we speak of those who have been by grace adopted through faith into the family of God in Christ, then we can speak of restorative discipline. Until that point we can only speak of wrath.


  16. Matt/Anne, given your current misbehavior -- squatting in an Episcopal church to offer your fashion-police Anglican ::snort:: tough love (no rainbow sashes: Father doesn't approve)-- I'd say the merciful treatment of rebels is something you might ponder. And pray for.


  17. ah, well, so much for theological discussion...

  18. Matt,

    In all honesty, your theology is totally foreign to me. I was brought up in the household of a priest. I have never heard that we are "objects of wrath". Instead, I was constantly told how much God loves us, loves everyone - that everyone is a child of God. As a result, we were also taught to reach out to everyone with the love of God. Although I number evangelicals as friends (you know, something equivalent to people saying, "I have friends who are gay.") I have never heard it said that we are "objects of wrath". The phrase disturbs me and, quite honestly, shocks me. It is so far from anything I have ever been taught - not only by my father, but also in Bible studies through the years, from the many different priests in the towns we lived, and by my seminary.

    I have no doubt that there are times that it appears that we may be "objects of wrath" but that is due to our own sense of separation from God through some action of our own.

    To say that we are created "creatures" rather than children appears to be in contradiction to Genesis 1 which states that we are created in God's image. Not that I believe that animals are not also children of God in a different sense and just as loved as we are.

    I'm sorry but the "objects of wrath" thing just has me reeling and almost speechless - I feel like I'm stuttering as I write this because I just don't comprehend such a thing. I realize that to a large extent, our theology comes out of our experiences which feed into what we are taught in our studies and seminaries so that certain things will resonate. But even in my most down times, my most separated from God times, I have never known myself as anything other than as a beloved child of God.

    Love and Prayers,
    Ann Marie

  19. Anne Marie, they are not my words, they come from Eph 2 wherein Paul contrasts the natural or fallen state of humanity with that of redeemed humanity:

    "2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body [1] and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."

    This does not mean that God does not love those creatures that are objects of his wrath. A human judge for example, may love a criminal who breaks the law, but that love does not and cannot rightly keep him from pronouncing just sentence.

    If it did he would not be a good judge but a nepotistic one.

    Why do we expect God to be less just than a human judge?

    If we are cosmic rebels, as the scriptures clearly teach that we are (see Romans 3:10-18) and the sentence for rebellion is eternal death (as the scriptures indicate) then God cannot arbitrarily commute that sentence without doing violence to justice itself.

    This is why the atonement of Christ was necessary because in Christ God could be both the punished sinner (though he was without sin) and the just judge or...both just and the justifier of those who come to faith in Christ.


  20. (Dan)
    Ann Marie, have you never sung Amazing Grace? God is in the business of saving wrteches. Saving them from what? Yes, God IS LOVE. But He is also holy and just. At least that is what every translation and version of the Bible I have ever seen screams from the rooftop.

  21. Matt,

    This one Pauline reference ("objects of wrath") stands in contradistinction to every other
    Scriptural and Patriarchal reference to the cross or the theology of the cross that I have ever
    encountered. Can you supplement the passage from Ephesians with anything else?

    The emphasis on the single most negative illustration you can find is disturbing to me, not only
    because it flies in the face of everything I've ever read (even from those who espouse an extreme,
    Calvinist model of atonement), but also because it seems to posit a model of the Divine that is
    soul-crushing and retributive, IMHO.

    You have been actively courted by “liberal” web sites recently for your input: there is a hunger
    for discussion among some on the Left with some on the Right, but increasingly, I confess to
    reading your posts here and elsewhere with a sense of dread. To me, your message represents an
    eclipse of the Good News of God in Christ.

    “The belief of a cruel god makes a cruel man.” — Thomas Paine

    Tell me it ain't so, Father Matt. Show me something good -- please.

  22. Matt,
    Never, ever, ever, in my 17 years of Catholic education, have I ever been told that by nature I was an object of wrath; the most stern warning was that I could fall from grace. Nor, in my 20 years plus as an Episcopalian have I heard such And that was enough, for we were taught of a loving God who sent His only son that we might have eternal life. Knowing that, we never wanted to fall from grace - worked hard not to.

    Matt, its pretty hard to have a religious discussion with such harsh words; with words that are so diametrically oppossed to what I have believed all my life. It seems you want to condemn first and foremost, then teach. I might be wrong, but so many of your comments on liberal sights come off that way. At the risk of sounding trite - I wish you didn't hate yourself so much, then you might think more of others.


  23. Plinx,

    It is interesting that the classic doctrine of the Fall, embraced by both protestants and Catholics in the west, based in the scriptures articulated and defined by S. Augustine contra Pelagius, and held today by both Calvinists and Catholics, namely that we are utterly helpless on our own, lost in sin and rebellion, deserving of damnation, is, in your mind, an odd and strange doctrine.

    Certainly there are variations within protestantism and amongst Catholic traditions with regard to the extent of the fall, but since all embrace sola gratia, all, necessarily embrace the idea that we are lost in our post-lapsarian natural, unaided state...objects of wrath...apart from the grace of God.

    There are differences with regard to how this grace is attained, to be sure, but that it is an absolute necessity for salvation is beyond question.

    The good news is that God has provided for our salvation by his own hand in and throught his own sacrifice on the cross in the person of Christ.

    To understand the extent of the loving graciousness of this salvation, however, we must come to terms with what we, by nature and behavior, deserve because what we deserve, he bore.

  24. Dan,

    I have sung Amazing Grace at most of the funerals that I have led. And always the word "wretch" bothers me. Now, I will admit that I was conditioned not to like the phrase. I prefer the words - "that saved and strengthened me." I know first hand what the emphasis on the idea of "wretch" can do in terms of damage of some people's spirituality and their relationship with God.

    I find that a focus on "wretch" keeps our focus from being where it should. For years, I believed that the focus of the Prayer of Humble Access was on the idea that I was not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table. If wasn't until I was in seminary that I realize that the real focus is on the mercy of God. I find that to constantly be speaking to how wretched we are contributes to our losing touch with just how merciful and loving God is. In other words - I believe (and believe strongly) that theology that focuses on the sinfulness of humankind has it focus on humankind rather than on God where it should be. It is not our condition that should be key but rather God's grace.

    You may argue that the focus is God's grace but I find that the follow ups in judgement of other human beings does not support this. If the focus was God's grace we would accept that God works in mysterious ways, God's wonders to perform and quit judging how God is present in the lives of others - to the extent of stating that God cannot be present in the lives of some.

    Love and Prayers,
    Ann Marie

  25. Matt,

    Re just judgement.

    I do not deny the just judgement of God. I believe that many have misunderstood that through the centuries.

    In a class on perspectives on death we studied Dante's Inferno as a model of how Christians understood the afterlife. Needless to say, I caused a bit of a furor in questioning some of the ideas behind such ideas of judgement.

    Key to me were the idea of two judgements - one at the time of death and another at the end times. If God is eternal and linear time is a human construct then there cannot be two separate judgements.

    The other point I made was the idea that God would punish eternally something that happened in linear time. At the most in the Old Testament, God calls for punishment equal to the crime - an eye for an eye etc.

    The judgement of God as you have come to understand it is retributive. That is contrary to the scriptures (as matter of interest - it is a Latin construct). The Hebrews understood God in terms of restorative judgement.

    Christ's ministry was not one of punishment but one of restoration. It shows clearly in his interactions with those who were outcasts of their society. It shows clearly in his healing. It shows clearly in his chosing of his disciples - we will note that he did not focus on the "wretchedness" of those he called.

    To see us as object of wrath also negates the end of the flood story. God realizes what God's wrath has done in the destruction of the flood. When Noah stepped off the ark it wasn't to a verdant green valley as shown in many of our pictures of the event. It was to death and destruction (I got this picture from a theology student from Burundi who related it to his return to his city after political upheaval). God also sees the destruction from the flood and vows never to send a flood again. God knows the destructiveness of wrath and God is Creator not destroyer. Wrath is destructive not life giving.

    The Old Testament prophets are filled with images of God reaching out with love, not wrath, to the Israelites - a passage which talks about Ephriam as a child comes to mind. Even in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God takes care to make sure that Adam and Eve are clothed and places protections on them. That is not treating them wrathfully but rather lovingly letting them face the consequences of their choice. The same with Cain after he murders Abel.

  26. Save "the wretch" from what? From the despair of believing that they are so foul God cannot possibly love them unconditionally. That's from what. That's good news for the wretch, but not such good news for the faithful son, the brother of the wretch, who would like to see the wretch get some punishment before the father takes him back.

  27. The Rev. Cameron Miller of Trinity Church Buffalo has written an enlightening commentary on these issues here.

    I was struck by this: What if Jesus did not die for your sins?

    What if Jesus did not die for your sins and you are still a Christian? Then you shouldn’t be too lonely living among the seventy-five percent of the world’s six and a half billion people who, if they ever thought about it, would also be discombobulated by the idea Jesus died for the sins of prosperous North Americans as well as abandoned Brazilian street children centuries before any of them ever existed. Joining that throng of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Atheists and more flavors of religion than Baskin Robbins has ice cream are fellow Christians who also find the idea of the Atonement far fetched.

  28. (Dan)
    OK. I read the sermon by the Rev. Miller. Like many others before, he denies essential elements of the faith. On a very fundamental level, what exactly is it about his God that makes Him loving? If Jesus was not the ransom for many, what evidence is there that God so loved the world...? Or that He even loved it just a little bit?


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.