Essay / Misc.

Good Friday to Easter (Robert W. Jenson)

An intriguing discussion of the atonement from Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson’s 1997 Systematic Theology, Volume 1. For anyone who’s read Jenson before, it goes without saying that just because I quote him doesn’t mean I endorse his whole project. Who could possibly do that? I read Jenson for the provocation of it, and am never disappointed. Here he provokes thought about how Christians live their way through the understanding of the atonement.

Let us then indeed begin afresh. And let us first recur to the Gospels’ narrative way of interpreting the cross. Freed by a more daring Christology than is usual in the West, we can say: the church’s primal way of understanding the Crucifixion is that we live this narrative, that we rehearse the canonical story, in the context of Scripture’s encompassing narrative and so that the rehearsing is a word-event in our own lives.

The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling action and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.

That is, what fundamentally must happen is that the passion narrative live in the church as the church’s account of herself and her God before God and the world. One is strongly tempted simply to say: what must above all happen, to understand reconciliation at Golgotha, is that the church recite the passion narrative –traditionally, according to St. John– in a Good Friday liturgy at which the Cross is contemplated, the Old Testament –Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22!– is heard, prayer is offered for Caiphas, Pilate, and their underlings, and the death is recited not only verbally but bodily, by distribution of the Lord’s body and blood. One is tempted to say: what fundamentally must happen in the church, as right interpretation of the Crucifixion, is that the traditional Good Friday liturgy, with its unique prayers and –as the English church called it– its “creeping to the cross,” be celebrated.

Crucifixion is the good that it is only dramatically together with the Resurrection. Therefore its Good Friday representation cannot stand by itself, but can be the church’s primary interpretation of the Crucifixion only in one service with celebration of the Resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection together are the church’s Pasch, her passing over from being no people to being God’s people, her rescue from alienation to fellowship, her reconciliation. Only as this is enacted in the church as one event is the Crucifixion understood. One is –again– strongly tempted to say: what must happen as the fundamental explanation of atonement is that the ancient single service of the Triduum, “the Three Days,” the continuous enactment of the Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, covering Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Night, be celebrated.

Readers may take the above mandates as strange systematic theology. Are not these paragraphs instead “liturgics” –and romantic liturgics at that? But if a theological proposition is one that says, “To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,” and if the gospel is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology sometimes to take the form of ritual rubrics, to take the form “To be saying the gospel, let us do F rather than G.” Our commendation of the Triduum simply happens to be the first appearance of such theology in this work.

— Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology I: The Triune God (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 189-90.

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