A Bigger God

Jesus and the Cross

A Bigger God
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Our predestination to glory is prior by nature to any notion of sin. —John Duns Scotus [1]

The Franciscan School, led by such teachers as Duns Scotus, refused to see the Incarnation and its finale on the cross as a mere reaction to human failure. God was much more than a problem solver. Instead, Franciscans claimed that the cross was a freely chosen revelation of Love on God’s part. In so doing, they reversed the engines of almost all world religion up to that point, which assumed humans had to spill blood to get to a distant and demanding God. On the cross, Franciscans believed, God was “spilling blood” to reach out to us! [2] This is a sea change in consciousness. Instead of being a theological transaction, the crucifixion was a dramatic demonstration of God’s outpouring love, meant to utterly shock the heart and mind and turn it back toward trust and love of the Creator.

In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some “necessary sacrifice”; if it could, it would not and could not work its transformative effects. Duns Scotus and his followers were committed to protecting the absolute freedom to love in God. If forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all. Love and forgiveness must be freely given or they do not accomplish their deeply transformative healing. Self-serving love does not change the heart. It must be free and undeserved love or transformation does not happen. (Think about that and you will know it is true!)

I’m not sure many Christians recognize the dangers of penal substitutionary atonement theory. Perhaps the underlying assumptions were never made clear, even though thinking people throughout the ages were often repelled by such a crass notion of God. This theory has become a nail in the coffin of belief for many sincere, thoughtful individuals today. Some Christians just repress their misgiving because they think it implies a complete loss of faith. But I would wager that for every person who voices doubt, many more quietly walk away from a religion that has come to seem irrational, mythological, and deeply unsatisfying to the heart and soul. And these are usually not “bad” people!

Christianity can do so much better, and doing so will not diminish Jesus in the least. In fact, it will allow Jesus to take on a universal and humanly appealing dimension. The cross cannot be an arbitrary and bloody sacrifice triggered by a sin that was once committed by one man and one woman under a tree between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Frankly, that idea reduces any notion of a universal or truly “catholic” revelation to one planet, at the edge of one solar system, in a universe comprised of billions of galaxies with trillions of solar systems. A religion based on required sacrifices is just not glorious or hopeful enough or even befitting the marvelous creation. To those who cling to Anselm’s understanding, I would say, as J. B. Phillips wrote many years ago, “Your God is too small.” [3]

References:
[1] John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio III, dist. 7, q. 3. See Four Questions on Mary, tr. Allan B. Wolter (Franciscan Institute: 2000), 23.

[2] See Mary Beth Ingham, Scotus for Dunces (Franciscan Institute: 2003), 75-77.

[3] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (Macmillan: 1954).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 143-145.

Image credit: The Crucifixion of Christ (detail), Jacopo Tintoretto, 1568, San Cassiano, Venice, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The cross is not just a singular event. It’s a statement from God that reality has a cruciform pattern. Jesus was killed in a collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths, caught between the demands of an empire and the religious establishment of his day. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a “mixed” world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. He hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured—holding together all the primary opposites (see Colossians 1:15-20). —Richard Rohr

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