The Cross of Christ - John Stott
John Stott’s recent retirement from public ministry was preceded about a year ago by the publishing of a special edition of what must be one of his finest contributions to popular theology - ‘The Cross of Christ’. The book highlights the centrality of the cross to the historic Christian faith, a theological explanation of the death of Jesus in the gospels and the New Testament, the need for an atonement in God’s forgiveness of sinful people, the biblical basis for such concepts as satisfaction for sin, and the self-substitution of God in the atonement.
Stott addresses criticisms of traditional concepts of penal substitutionary atonement, as well as providing a historical survey of the ways in which atonement has variously been presented - from the church fathers to the present day. He concludes with a section on the practical outworking of a belief in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross - including why the Roman Catholic version as incorporated in the mass, and the various attempts to update it since the Council of Trent, must be rejected.
What is the value to the emerging church and the contemporary Christian community at large of this traditional evangelical defence of the atonement? Such a question must be modified further in the light of the particular explorations which have formed the backbone of the Open Source Theology website.
The timing of the reissue of the book in 2006 cannot have been coincidental - coming in the light(?) of controversy surrounding the publication of Steve Chalke/Alan Mann’s book - ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’, in which a traditional (if perhaps caricatured) view of penal substitutionary atonement was held up for criticism. Debate has continued since then about the meaning of the atonement - but often generating more heat than light, and at worst, demonstrating a superficial grasp of the significance of the death of Jesus on the cross, and perhaps contributing to a loss of confidence in how it is to be presented in today’s world.
On this site, penal substitutionary atonement has been affirmed - but not in a way that reflects traditional Christian belief, let alone protestant evangelical thinking. The debate here has been whether the death of Jesus was universal in its direct intention, or whether it was a limited event relating to the history of Israel in the 1st century. The discussions on this topic can be pursued in the relevant sections through the general content menu.
Stott sounds like a trumpet call from a bygone era - except that many, like myself, would probably think that the trumpet call needs to be heard just as much today as it was when the book was first published in 1986.
Stott is arguing for a classic, traditional view of the death of Jesus on the cross as directly relevant and applicable to the needs of all ages, and not simply Israel in the 1st century. He draws attention again to the biblical basis of the uniqueness of the cross as the place where God atoned for the sins of mankind - and therefore as the very heart of Christian belief; more at the heart than the resurrection, for instance - which might seem a more attractive and obvious place in which to anchor the central Christian experience of new life.
From the point of view of Christian discipleship, it is necessary to distinguish between an objective understanding of the accomplishment of the cross and a subjective understanding. The former asserts a uniqueness to the accomplishment of the cross, to which nothing can be contributed by any human agency. It is entirely the place where God did something for man - not simply 1st century man, but mankind for all time. The latter sees in the cross an appeal to penitence, on the basis of moral persuasion, and a call to discipleship. Such may ensue from the former, but cannot replace it. Such central distinctions lead to an examination of the meaning and significance of the cross.
A feature of the OST site, one of its central propositions (though not one with which all have agreed), is the invalidity of ontological categories in the face of a fully worked out narrative/historical understanding of the New Testament. The former become invalid, it is argued, because they do not constitute a reading of the texts according to a historically contextualised reconstruction. In other words, 1st century Jews or Gentiles would not have understood the relevance of questions about the nature of God, the divinity of Jesus, the trinity and so on, because that was not how they would have read and understood the scriptural texts, nor would it have served uniquely 1st century eschatological purposes or needs. When the biblical context is understood, it is suggested that ontological speculations become redundant and irrelevant to us also.
I have personally questioned this view, since the NT texts, gospels and letters, seem to me to be alive with different ways of presenting the divinity of Jesus - albeit in 1st century terms, which may not be the same as those we have traditionally used to come to such conclusions. Nevertheless, the conclusions are the same! In other words, the question of the nature and person of God is one that very much informs the narrative history of the people of God which the texts are drawing out. The question is one which inevitably finds its focus on the death of Jesus on the cross, and has significance in informing our understanding of sin (1st century and today), the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross, and the uniqueness of Jesus as inaugurating not only a renewed people of God, but a people with a renewed nature, and a renewed way of relating to God.
Stott’s background and scholarship enable him to draw on a wide variety of traditions and theology - especially relating to the atonement. We have Hugo Grotius’s moral government and satisfaction of public justice presentation, as well as Gustav Aulen’s ‘Christus Victor’ interpretation. Stott is able to place these views within a wide-ranging grid of atonement understanding from the early church fathers onwards. There is frequently nothing new under the sun.
Stott is weakest in having little or nothing to say about more recent developments in biblical interpretation - especially the third quest, narrative/historical interpretation, and of course, the discussions on this site! But that is where we can fill in the gaps. I personally find Stott’s presentation a timely and necessary call to reconsider a serious and worked-through version of the atonement which should form the basis of contemporary reassessment of the Christian tradition - in its classic and evangelical forms