In chapter two of his small book on the cross and resurrection (see previous post), Rowan Williams turns to the important but controversial motif of sacrifice. He reminds us that “there is no pre-cross Christianity”: that is, as far as we can tell, there was no early Christianity that regarded Jesus only as a charismatic teacher or preacher. “[N]ot only is the first stratum, the base level, of Christianity preoccupied with the cross: it seems to take it for granted that the cross is for something, that it is an event whose effect is liberation given to us from beyond ourselves” (p. 21).
When the New Testament writers (and other early Christians) looked for ways to understand the death of Jesus, they reached, almost instinctively it seems, for the language of sacrifice. “If a first-century Jew had heard the statement that Jesus died ‘for many’, for the forgiveness of sins, his or her first thought would probably have been to connect it with the system of sacrifice: when blood is shed in God’s presence, for the sake of God’s people, for the avoiding of disaster, that is sacrifice” (p. 22). It is sacrifice—moreso than the image of the law court—that provides the controlling metaphor for much of the NT’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion.
Williams briefly reviews the multiple forms and purposes of sacrifice in the Old Testament, including peace offerings, guilt sacrifices, the great Day of Atonement where the sins of the whole people are laid on the scapegoat, and the daily offering of the lamb in the Temple sanctuary. There is no one, simple understanding of sacrifice that we can put into a “tidy system,” but
in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. (p. 24)
The sacrifice, on this understanding, both turns away God’s anger and establishes (or re-establishes) a covenant between God and God’s people. “The gift is given, and in response God not only covers over sin but promises actively to be there for his people” (p. 25).
Turning to the NT, Williams highlights several key passages that use sacrificial language referring back to the OT. Paul uses language of “propitiation,” as well as the metaphors of the scapegoat and the covenant established in blood, when writing about what God has accomplished in Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as analogous to, but surpassing, the Day of Atonement ritual, while both 1 Peter and Revelation reflect on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.
This does not, Williams notes, add up to a “precise theory of Christ’s death as a sacrifice,” but we can identify at least three ways it has a sacrificial effect. First, it “breaks the chain between evil actions and consequences”; second, it deals with the failures not just of individuals, but of the people taken collectively; third, it establishes and reinforces the covenant—the “peace treaty” between God and humanity.
Granted that sacrifice is a powerful symbol or metaphor, can we say what it is a metaphor for? After all, Jesus was not literally sacrificed as a ritual victim in a cultic setting. He was executed by the Roman state as a rebel on a desolate hill, far outside the Temple.
To understand this, Williams turns to developments in the OT and intertestamental Jewish thought that seem to move away from a literal understanding of sacrifice and toward a more “spiritual” view. Specifically, “the real heart of sacrifice was obedience . . . to perform the law, to do God’s will, is to give the gift that pleases him most” (pp. 29-30). And it was recognized that fully giving the gift of one’s heart, will, and decisions could lead, under certain circumstances, to death: “obedience to the law could mean death at the hands of a ruthless occupying power.” Such a death, it came to be thought, could “cover over” the sins of others.
It’s a short step from here to understanding Jesus’ life and death as a sacrifice for others:
At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. […]
But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed; it’s that kind of world. That’s why the New Testament speaks of the cost of Jesus’ obedience, and of Jesus paying a price on our behalf; he buys us back. (p. 31)
The uniquely Christian twist on this idea, however, is that Jesus is more than a perfectly obedient human being whose self-sacrifice covers the sins of others and restores relationship with God. He is, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, God enfleshed.
The obedience that Jesus offers to his Father is not just that of a very pious Jew: it goes deeper. It’s a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (p. 33)
In other words, sacrifice is here not understood as something humanity offers God to assuage his anger, but as a gift that God himself gives: the loving response of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Human beings are “caught up in” this loving relationship, enabled by the Spirit to share in the Son’s loving response to the Father.
This is, Williams says, what the often-misunderstood St. Anselm of Canterbury was trying to get at, in part, in his treatise on the Incarnation.
At the heart of [Anselm’s] argument is the idea of giving a gift to God that is worthy of God. What gift could be worthy of God except God’s own love? Jesus, perfectly human, perfectly diving, gives it to God as we cannot because of our ingrained sin. So the life and death of Jesus are the translation into human terms of the eternal truth of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And when that divine life becomes active and local and immediate in the world, it changes the definition of what human beings are. It interposes between God and human failure, a new face for humanity.
‘Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him,’ says the great eucharistic hymn. We are able to say to God: ‘Don’t look at our failures. You know, Lord God, that humanity is more than this because you have made it more than this. You know that humanity is more than me and my miserable and wretched and incompetent struggles to be human, because you have given to the world perfect humanity: Jesus’ humanity. And in association with that new human nature I can be at peace with you, my sins forgiven, my injuries healed, a new creation.’ (pp. 34-5)
Williams admits that we can’t quite get a satisfying intellectual grip on this “immense metaphor of sacrifice.” But at its heart it’s saying that “what Jesus does, who Jesus is, is a gift offered to God, offered from the earth, from humanity, and yet offered with divine liberty and divine love. That gift – so costly, so painful in a world of injustice and violence – ‘covers over’ the world’s failure, makes the face of the world new, makes peace” (p. 36).
Thus we are driven beyond the idea that the cross is (just) a revelation or sign of God’s love—it accomplishes something for us that we could never have done for ourselves. We can say that Jesus suffered “for us” or “in our place”–though not primarily in the penal-substitutionary sense favored by some evangelical Protestants. As David B. Hart described it in an article on Anselm, it is a “gift exceeding every debt.”