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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Love so Amazing: Thoughts on Good Friday Evening

At the end of the Good Friday service at the Cathedral, we sang Isaac Watts’ great hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. When we got to the last verse, ‘Love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul, my all’, there was an unexpected sunburst over the great cross that had been processed in and set up at the front of the nave. Until then, it had been one of those bleak, grey days we have endured for most of March. So this unexpected light felt like a transfiguration, an epiphany. Nature imitated liturgy in the words of another passion hymn we had sung: ‘Tree of glory, tree of light’.

You can have Jesus’ last words from the cross bleak and agonised as in St Matthew and Mark.  You can have them peaceful and serene as in St Luke. You can have them victorious and triumphant, as in St John’s ‘It is accomplished’. All these are valid ways of reading the cross. Golgotha means many different things. But on Good Friday, the liturgy chooses the passion according to St John. His gospel tells of a man destined for a victorious throne where he is ‘lifted up’. It is nothing less than the cross where he finishes in triumph the work he has come to do: the work of love.

Love. For me there was another, more important, epiphany earlier in the service. The preacher was speaking about the cross as the eternal sign of God’s love. In the course of a powerful sermon he said that the problem with ‘punishment’ theories of the atonement is that they are experienced not so much as focused on divine love as on my own sin, my guilt, my shame. In this we are self-concerned, driven by the need to placate angry gods who deal only with forensic transactions without which there can’t be forgiveness or reconciliation. This sinful idée fixe subverts the very idea of love freely given.  

Let me go on in my own words. This is not to deny the central place that forgiveness and reconciliation have in the gospel. Far from it. ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ says Jesus in St John. It’s a question of how we understand love. If we see it in punitive terms, God exacting a penalty in his own Son for the sins of the world, we miss the fundamental point about the nature of love. Its categories are not legal or ceremonial but personal.  It is self-forgetting, self-giving, self-emptying. There is no higher category with which to define it. Love is simply what it is. He loves us because he loves us. It costs everything and gives everything. William Vanstone puts it like this in words we also sang, drawn from his profound book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense:

Love that gives, gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.

I have lived too long with punitive theories of the atonement. I don’t deny that they have a long pedigree in the church (though I do dispute the view of an online conversation partner today that substitutionary atonement is ‘orthodox’: there's never been an orthodox definition of atonement as the preacher pointed out). Nor do I deny that the New Testament draws on legal and ritual categories, nor that it affirms the idea of a victim freeing another person by standing in his/her place. I have defended the place of this imagery in some of my writings. But the point is precisely that these are ways of speaking: imagery, analogy, metaphor. They are not the heart of the person-person relationship which is where in human life we learn everything we know about the character of love.

At the Archbishop’s enthronement at Canterbury last week, we were invited to sing a song that contains the line ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’. I am not alone in questioning whether it can be right to speak about a Son who placates an angry Father. It drives a wedge right through the Trinity. It collapses God’s love into an impersonal transaction. Anyone who has ever loved knows that this is not how love is. It is more costly, more risky and more generous than that. 

The cross shows us what it means to love to the end. As Vanstone’s hymn has it:

Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.

On Good Friday, the darkness is transfigured and the sun breaks through the clouds. We recognise love enthroned on the cross and say 'yes' to it with all our hearts in the hope, the conviction, that one day it will be enthroned in all the globe. For amor vincit omnia.  Love overcomes in the end. 'Love so amazing, so divine.'


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  2. Your point about love not being legal or ceremonial but personal is marvelous.

    I struggle to keep myself from being mired down in the bleakness and painful physicality of the Passion Gospel. Every year my church offers the Stations of the Cross after the Good Friday liturgy, and I can never bring myself to do them because it's just too much.

    It's good to remember that it truly IS accomplished. Our journey through the Passion Gospel isn't meant to be some mini torture chamber, but a reminder of a freely offered sacrifice rooted in love beyond reason.

  3. Well said Michael! Unconditional love cannot sit alongside (what your preacher termed) punishment theories of atonement - or else it is not unconditional and is, therefore, not love at all because you cannot have 'conditional love'. The challenges of (unconditional) love are, however, immense and reach the very core of our being. Perhaps this partly explains why there is a tendency to seek to qualify it.

  4. Dear Michael,

    I have been thinking over the implications of your tweet about the wrath of God over the last week. I have been trying to reflect about it rationally, partly because 'In Christ Alone' is a hymn that holds deep personal significance. I appreciate your view point and your thoughts about this matter and whilst I do not agree with everything, you raise some important matters about the nature of love. My concern is the philosophical cost of removing a punitive understanding of the cross. It would be easy as an evangelical to comment on your thoughts through the medium of scripture, however I do not think that is fair or appropriate.

    I just have three comments to make to illustrate the danger of removing wrath from the Christ event:

    Firstly, it is easy to make wrath synonymous with anger. Whilst I am sure there is a degree of nuance to your thoughts on this, the tone of your blog assumes the two things to be the same. However, my principal understanding of the word wrath in a biblical context is the association with judgement and justice. This makes the process less about emotion and more about fairness. I fear the cost of removing wrath and punishment from atonement is the reduction of God being a fair and rational judge. In combining the concepts of love and justice, mercy and wrath within the divine character there is a beauty which magnifies the depth of love rather than undermines it.

    Secondly, the preacher rightly identified the emphasis on the self that often comes through substitution atonement. I feel this is a legitimate critique if the cross is reduced to solely penal substitution. However, in removing it completely the cross becomes solely about the role of God and the link to humanity is underplayed. It seems to me that the whole of Christ's life functions as a bridge between the divine and the human. From the incarnation to the resurrection Christ draws together the objective to the subjective, the perfect to the imperfect, the immutable to the changeable. Without the link to us and our own guilt the cost is the loss of the freedom that the cross and resurrection bring.

    Lastly, just a comment about the wedge that punitive theology places within the trinity. I feel that this is an important part of the cross event, as shown by the cry of dereliction. However, I am not sure that it collapses love into an impersonal transaction. Instead by driving a wedge into a fundamentally perfect loving relationship it amplifies the cost that Jesus paid. Love is measured by cost and sacrifice, what we sacrifice for those we love quantifies the value that we see in them. That is the degree to whcih God loves humanity at the very cost of the perfect relationship within himself. A wedge in the trinity is a greater sacrifice of unconditional love that even Christ's death iteself.

    I believe that a sole emphasis on substitutionary atonement reduces the painful beauty of the whole Christ event into something contrite. However, there is an inherent danger and cost to removing all understanding of it also.