Speaking of the cross
If Christian language is Christian just insofar as it takes its bearings from Jesus Christ, then there is a sense in which everything Christians say is Christology or Christ-talk—even when Christ is not being mentioned. Taken in that ample sense, Christology would embrace the whole gamut of topics that are usually discussed in Christian dogmatics or systematic theology. Such is Ingolf Dalferth’s impressive enterprise in Crucified and Resurrected. The “grammar” of Christology in his subtitle applies to discourse about God and God’s Trinity, to pneumatology and eschatology, and in the last quarter of the book to salvation and in particular the “saving significance” of the cross.
This last, lengthy chapter, “Atoning Sacrifice,” invites comparison with Stephen Finlan’s Sacrifice and Atonement. In some ways the two could not be more different. Dalferth writes as a philosophical theologian in a grand, heavyweight Germanic manner. Finlan is primarily a biblical scholar, a teacher, and an American—eclectic, cut-to-the-chase, and at times colloquial. Yet they share a common concern: they concur that the more or less standard way in which Western Christianity has understood and spoken of Christ’s death is very problematic.
Dalferth addresses the problem in the context of his more comprehensive project. The comprehensiveness is not optional; a more restricted approach could not do justice to the subject matter of Christian language, which is a complex, interconnected whole. The “grammatical” rules that govern talk about the Spirit, for example, can be understood only in relation to proper speech about humankind, which itself is bound up with the right way to speak of creation and of God as creator. In turn, this overall regulative coherence registers the fact that all genuinely Christian speech derives from one and the same confessional affirmation: God raised Jesus from the dead.
- The theological tradition in question begins in the New Testament, on which any critical investigation must therefore be focused.
- From that standpoint, to all relevant intents and purposes, “sacrifice” and “atonement” coincide. There may be a stratum of Hebrew scripture where not every sacrifice is regarded as an atoning act—a performance that compensates somehow for past wrongdoing—but by New Testament times it was generally held that all kinds of sacrifice are offered to make atonement.
- The language of sacrifice, so construed, is employed in various ways by various New Testament authors to explain the savingness of the cross. Christ’s death saves because it atones, and it atones inasmuch as it is a sacrifice.
- Such an understanding of how Christ’s death benefits others is by no means the only way in which the New Testament speaks of salvation. It did give rise to the main stream of Christian teaching about Christ’s death as the “because” of salvation, and that teaching is open to serious objection. Accordingly, what has to be asked is whether, or in what sense, the biblical language of sacrifice and atonement is definitive.