Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Problem with a Cross-Centered Theology

Those who know me know that I wear a cross signet ring. It's actually my college class ring; I wanted something that I would want to continue wearing, and not just put in a box somewhere, so my parents bought me a plain signet ring and had a cross etched in it. It was intended as a statement of my faith, as an opportunity to share Jesus with others.

The cross has been the main symbol of Christianity for most of its history. Not all of its history--it wasn't until crucifixion stopped being actively used by the Romans as a means of torture and death that Christians began widely using it as the symbol of their faith. But it has long been Christianity's predominant symbol. Every church has at least one. Most Christian organizations use it in their logos. And it's not hard to see why. What Jesus did on the cross for us is central to what we believe.

Most Christians, if asked what they believe, would offer something like this: "God created human beings to be in a relationship with him, but we messed that up through sin, so he came to the earth as a human being--Jesus--and lived a sinless life and then died on a cross in our place, so we could be in a relationship with him again and spend eternity with him in heaven." You'll notice that the cross is at the very turning point of this statement of faith. It's completely central.

Now, although I agree with every part of that statement, there's something I think is missing--and it's more significant than simply the fact that the whole thing needs a lot of fleshing out and explanation. What's missing is the resurrection of Jesus. Having had this issue brought to my attention by N. T. Wright's fantastic book, Surprised by Hope, it is astonishing to me that any statement of Christian faith could ever be made without reference to the Resurrection. And yet I wonder how many people, reading that statement the first time through, noticed its absence or considered it significant.

Of course, you could tuck it in there, right between "place" and "so," and it would fit. And Christians do believe in the Resurrection and do think that affirming the Resurrection is important. My problem isn't that Christians don't believe in Jesus' resurrection; it's that the Resurrection ends up being an afterthought in the way most of us think about our faith.

Think about it: we view the central problem as sin, and the fact that a holy God can't simply let sin slide. The penalty--death--must be paid. The solution is a substitute: if someone who doesn't deserve to die dies in our place, then we don't have to die ourselves. The crime is paid for. And that's what Jesus did on the cross. But notice what we've done: Jesus' work on the cross solves the problem. When He said, "It is finished," it really was--that is to say, the whole problem is solved. It's like the end of a detective story: once the detective solves the crime, the story is, for all intents and purposes, over. The technical term for the ending of a story, after its climax, is denouement. It's really just window dressing, and a lot of modern writers try to get rid of it entirely, and just end at the climax. You can think up your own window dressing, imagine how it came out on your own.

That's what happens to the Resurrection, in the typical way of looking at it. It happened, and we believe in it, but it's not really crucial to the story. If it hadn't happened, it wouldn't really matter, because the sin problem is already taken care of at the Cross. We try to make it matter, by saying that it demonstrated that Jesus really was who he said he was, or that it proves that there is life after death. But whatever it demonstrated, or whatever it proves, really doesn't matter in the end--the real work had already been done.

But that's not how the Apostle Paul saw it. "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Cor. 15:14). For Paul, the Resurrection is absolutely central. All of the gospel messages preached in the book of Acts make the Resurrection central. What Jesus did on the Cross was very important. But the biblical writers seem to indicate that what he did by rising from the dead was equally important, maybe even more so.

In my next few blog posts, I'm going to sketch out why I think the Resurrection needs to occupy a more central place in our theology. And I'm wondering if we've missed a rather obvious symbol of the faith. The world has seen us as people of the cross for a long time. Maybe it's time we need to be seen as people of the empty tomb.


  1. Spot on, my brutha. I've been working on an empty tomb icon for a while, but haven't nailed it (no pun intended).

  2. from Dave Porter

    Excellent analysis as usual Keith. I see two problems, one serious ane one whimsical. First, the understanding you offer (and that the church needs) comes from Christian doctrine--the importance of the resurrection is clear in nearly all the historic creeds-- and systematic theology. The "seeker friendly" (and I do NOT mean that term as a slight)orientation of many dynamic congregations today emphasizes experiential relationship with Jesus (something the mainline denominations have sadly neglected)and often shove the dry doctrinal stuff aside. A fully realized, true christian faith would seem to require both experiential relationship with Jesus and historical understanding of what's gone on before; teaching as well as encouraging. Hymns full of doctrine as well as the "prom songs to Jesus" that seem to fill many modern worship services.

    Now for the more whimsical part. I think that an empty tomb icon, while helpful in emphasizing the central role the resurrection plays in out faith, would irresistably lead to christians being labeled "cave-men." Heck, the tag line even exists already. Believing in Jesus- it's so easy a cave-man can do it.

    Anyway, God bless you, and Happy Easter.
    Dave Porter

  3. Thanks for the kind words, guys. Dave, you'll see in a few posts how this all can influence us in a very experiential sense. And "caveman" isn't the most perjorative term that's been used for us.

  4. from Dave Porter:

    looking forward to it, as usual

    "christian" was originally a pejorative, yes ??

  5. Keith,
    This is a good post. I come at this from a different perspective. The resurrection strikes me as an absolute certainty resulting from Christ's finished work at Calvary. Because of this, I place that work central to our faith and know that the resurrection is gifted to us through our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When looking at the emphasis Paul places on our faith, I see the following.

    1Co 2:2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

    1Co 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

    Ga 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

    I have a great deal of trouble watching the church move away from a Calvary centered focus, the ground of our faith, to the results of that faith. While the resurrection is essential doctrine along with the life, death and burial of Christ, what brings salvation to men is the preaching of the Cross, itself being a manifestation of the power of God.

    I wrote a short bit on this a while ago that explains my view perhaps a bit better than this.

    Blessings in Christ!

  6. Hi Brother Mallett. Thanks for reading and interacting with my post, and I did go back and read the post that you linked to. I hope you will continue to read the follow-up posts and interact with them as well, since they will flesh out where I am going with this.

    My purpose is not at all to denigrate or diminish Jesus' work on the Cross. It is rather to re-appreciate the significance of the Resurrection.

    Let me ask you this: what would change in your theology if God had chosen merely to whisk Jesus off to heaven after the work on the cross was complete, instead of bodily raising him? Since the atonement would already have been completed, would anything change? And if not, then how can Paul write that "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17)?

  7. Hi Mr. Schooley, I'm enjoying your posts. It's almost like one big book. Please continue to write more. P.S. Just wanted to know your thoughts on the article written in the Times Magazine Interfaith U. A theology school's push to train pastors, rabbis and Imams under one roof. Date of magazine September 6, 2010. Thanking you for your thougts on this article in advance. Avis aka 1st autumn

  8. Hi Avis. Welcome, and thanks for the kind words! I checked out the article you mentioned. I think that dialogue among people of different faiths is a good thing, to the extent that it promotes our ability to live with one another in peace and without stereotypes. However, I can't see forging a vocation in Christian ministry, including (especially) the unique truth claims that biblical Christianity makes, in an environment where people with mutually exclusive truth claims are forging vocations in those traditions. In other words, I think there needs to be a commitment to more than just a generic "spirituality" to cultivate a spiritual vocation.