In different seasons of my life, I’ve worn a cross on a chain around my neck. In college and seminary, I wore a large copper one. I later had a small pewter cross that I gave away to someone who admired it. More recently, it’s been a plain silver one. Unfortunately, though, wearing metal about my neck eventually gives me a rash and I have to stop. Now, I only wear a cross when doing memorial services.
Lots of people wear crosses; sometimes, I wonder what it means to the person wearing it. It can be a way of signalling devotion to Jesus, or some other more generic religious sentiment. The former is a life statement, the latter, more of a fashion statement.
I’ve heard it said more than once that the cross–an ancient instrument of torture and execution favored by a cruel empire–is a strange symbol with which to adorn oneself. Would a hangman’s noose be fashionable? A tiny replica of an electric chair? For a cross to be more than a fashion statement, we need to appreciate the impossible absurdity it represents.
Paul has put it this way:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25, NIV)
Paul is writing to a prideful, slogan-happy congregation that tends to fracture along party lines. The passage he quotes is from Isaiah, but Paul only cites the latter half. Here’s the quote in full:
The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” (Isa 29:13-14, NIV)
If verse 13 sounds familiar, it may be because Jesus himself uses it to condemn the Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Matt 15:8-9). Through the prophet Isaiah, God chastises his people for putting their trust in the saving efficacy of their religious observance on the one hand, while actively disobeying God on the other.
Politically, the situation Paul is addressing in Corinth is different from the one Isaiah addressed in ancient Jerusalem. But the spiritual problem is similar. The wisdom and counsel of God are reduced to human dimensions, becoming the possession of those who consider themselves both religious and wise.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing for some kind of pious anti-intellectualism, which would be a strange argument indeed coming from an academic like myself. Rather, I agree with Karl Barth’s famous pronouncement that “in the church of Jesus Christ, there should be no non-theologians.” It is the duty of every Christian to continue to deepen our understanding of what we say we believe.
But there is a limit beyond which human understanding, unaided, cannot penetrate. And one such limit is the foolishness of the cross. The cross scandalizes human wisdom.
We try to understand and explain it with our various theologies of atonement: penal substitution, ransom theory, Christus Victor, and the like. Each explanation has biblical support; each offers important insight into the work of Christ.
And yet…there is still some indivisible remainder by which the very idea of a crucified Messiah is an offense to human reason. If we don’t recognize this, the cross may become for us just one more religious symbol whose meaning is taken for granted, a symbol which fails to astound.
Sometimes, it sounds as if the gospel message we preach reduces down to the fact that we have a problem, and Jesus is the answer. We messed up. We sinned. So God had to fix it, and went to extraordinary lengths to do so. But one could say this while thinking of God as an exasperated parent, having to bail the kids out of jail. Is that all there is to it, or is there more?
It’s good for us to ask what problem the cross solves, and how. But it seems to me that the foolishness of the cross requires a different kind of question: what kind of God would do such a thing in the first place? Is the cross just a creative solution to a difficult problem? Or does it tell us something fundamental about the character of God himself?
What makes Good Friday good? Perhaps we should begin by asking what makes it foolish in the world’s eyes, and to some extent, in ours as well–if we would allow ourselves to notice it. Because I suspect that until we do so, the cross will remain a religious symbol which we display for our own human reasons, as opposed to an awe-inspiring reminder of the power and wisdom of God.