AAR Paper: “Patristic Perspectives on the Cross: A Reinterpretation”

[The following is the paper I presented at this year’s AAR meeting in AAR, in a session on “Trauma and the Cross.”]

Before beginning my argument, I’d like to clarify my particular motivation for participating on a session on “trauma and the cross.” First, I should say that I am not primarily interested in the psychological or spiritual structure of trauma. Though dealing with such dimensions is absolutely necessary for my argument, my concern here is first of all with the potential political dimensions of trauma, the political consequences of trauma for those who inflict it, suffer it, repress it, or repeat it. The Christian movement represents particularly fruitful ground for such an investigation, because it is a movement grounded in trauma—first of all the humiliating public execution of Christ himself, followed in train by a healthy number of the movement’s greatest leaders and thinkers (Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr…) and more everyday members (such as Perpetua and Felicity). What’s more, I agree with a growing number of scholars that the Christian movement must be understood as a political one, or at least as one in which the political and religious stakes could not be easily untangled.

My dissertation was based on this presupposition. It proceeded by reading patristic and medieval authors who attempted to answer the question of “why God became human”—in other words, reading the tradition of so-called “atonement theory”—through a social-political lens. What emerged was a consistent pattern: even if despite themselves, all the thinkers I investigated were drawn toward the idea of a fundamental solidarity among all human beings if they were to make sense of Christ’s work. Another important figure was the devil, who in the patristic writers came to serve as a kind of personification of the political bond among human beings, and whose displacement in later theories, starting with Anselm’s, wound up turning God himself into a tyrant—a shift that makes sense in light of Christianity’s shift from being an oppositional movement to becoming integrated into the establishment, but that took a surprisingly long time to carry out.

So one should not expect a one-to-one correspondence between theology and the political position or strategy of the movement. In the case of my dissertation focus, I would say that the time-lag involved was fortuitous, allowing a further development of a more subversive concept of salvation, albeit in a somewhat abstract way. In the case of approaches to the cross, however, the time-lag was not so fortunate—indeed, it was arguably destructive. What was a fairly effective coping mechanism—and served additionally as an effective political strategy—quickly went bad once circumstances changed.

The strategy is that of glorifying the cross. Faced with the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire—which had already executed their leader with the punishment that signified the unlimited violence the Romans were willing to unleash on those who threatened their rule (both politically, as in the case of rebels, and economically, as in the case of runaway slaves)—the early Christian movement stumbled upon a strategy that surely counts as one of the great “Hail Mary” passes of history: making their greatest weakness and shame into their greatest weapon. On the political level, this entailed turning persecution into a propaganda opportunity, through the “strategy of martyrdom.” (Tertullian is famous for claiming that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church—what is perhaps less well-known is that he knew it to be true first-hand, as he himself was converted by the courage and nobility of the martyrs.) On the theological level, it meant taking the ultimate symbol of Roman power, the cross, and turning it into the ultimate symbol of God’s victory over the entire world, including (implicitly) the Romans themselves. The same move is operative on the political and theological level: turning the ultimate instrument of fear into a motivation for daring and boldness, turning the symbol of domination into a symbol of triumph, turning their seemingly fatal wound into their greatest source of strength.

This is not the place to undertake a comprehensive study of this strategy and its aftermath. All I seek to do is to make a beginning, looking at three texts that represent three stages in the church’s political situation. I will begin with Justin Martyr’s First Apology, using it as an example of the pre-Constantinian period, when the political and theological levels of the strategy were still in sync. I will then turn to Athanasius’s treatise On the Incarnation, which seems to have been written in an awkward moment of transition—after the persecution officially ended with the Edict of Milan, or at least around that time, yet before the Arian controversy and its culmination in the imperially-sponsored definition of orthodoxy at Nicea. I will conclude by looking at Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism, which scholars date to around 383, that is, most likely after Theodosius’s effort to make orthodox Christianity the official religion of the empire led to the reassertion of Nicea at the First Council of Constantinople (381).

Justin’s First Apology is in many ways a standard apologetic text, of the kind that even my most good-natured and patient students quickly became deeply tired of this quarter, but it does have some interesting and unusual features. Foremost among them is his claim that Plato actually took his best ideas from Moses, a claim that will be followed up at greater length by Clement of Alexandria.

That argument, dubious as it is, is situated in an even stranger argument that amounts to a kind of conspiracy theory. On the one hand, he agrees with essentially every Christian theologian that the Jewish Scriptures prefigure Christ in significant ways. On the other hand, he believes that there are also significant prefigurations of Christ in pagan culture and mythology. One might expect him to say that this proves Christ’s coming for all nations all the more, but he takes it in a bizarre direction by arguing that the demons (who double as the gods and oracles of pagan nations) knew of the Hebrew Bible’s anticipation of Christ and purposely created parallel predictions within their own spheres in order to discredit Christ.

Yet there was one point where the Holy Spirit tripped up the demons, and that is precisely the crucifixion: “But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.” For Justin, this isn’t some minor detail they’ve missed, but the very core not only of Christianity, but of reality itself. The passage is worth quoting at length for sheer audacity:

And this, as the prophet foretold, is the greatest symbol of His power and role…. For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it…. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross. And so it was said by the prophet, “The breath before our face is the Lord Christ.” And the power of this form is shown by your own symbols on what are called “vexilla” [banners] and trophies, with which all your state possessions are made…. And with this form you consecrate the images of your emperors when they die, and you name them gods by inscriptions.

The cross becomes the foundation of all human labor and community, indeed—in a move that I find to be a bit of a “stretch”—the very path by which breath enters the body, in our (apparently) cross-shaped noses. So overwhelming is this evidence that Justin claims that his argument is in principle already finished: “Since, therefore, we have urged you both by reason and by an evident form, and to the utmost of our ability, we know that now we are blameless even though you disbelieve; for our part is done and finished” (all quotes from ch. 55, ANF translation).

This bold passage is one of the most extreme examples I have found of the strategy of turning the cross from Christianity’s greatest shame to its greatest advantage. Yet it already shows the dangers inherent in the strategy, because he ignores what is surely the elephant in the room for all his readers: the most obvious reasons that the “demons” didn’t attribute crucifixion to their gods is that it is a brutal, shameful, humiliating way to die, representing a person’s utter rejection by the political representatives of the human community. And though he berates the “demons” for interpreting the predictions of the cross in a merely symbolic way, he himself leaps immediately to symbolic interpretations, referring only briefly to the crucifixion and—in a pattern that will become deeply ingrained—making no reference whatsoever to its political significance or even the simple human fact of the suffering involved.

His strategy depends on the shock value of elevating something as horrible as the cross to the very principle of human life itself, and perhaps he didn’t need to belabor the point in his context, where crucifixion was still very much a part of the imperial arsenal. Yet glossing over this point will have fateful consequences in the long run, especially in light of the fact that the apologetic writings were the first significant body of literature that attempted to lay out Christian doctrine “systematically,” meaning that they largely set the agenda for later theologians, including those who were writing in much different circumstances.

Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is a case in point. Part of a two-part work, it follows up on his Against the Heathens, which consists largely of what had by that time become standard boilerplate idolatry critique. What has changed, however, is the tone. Where previous apologetic tracts had been fighting an uphill battle against ingrained imperial practices, Athanasius seems to be kicking idolatry while it’s down, presumably after it had been dealt the crushing blow of the Edict of Milan. In place of the standard apologetic notion that you can tell Christianity is true because of the way Christians live, we get the defeat of idols as the proof of Christ’s divinity—and nowhere is this proof more definitive than the triumph of the cross. There is a definite bitterness about Athanasius’s description of the cross, “which Jews traduce and Greeks laugh to scorn, but we worship.” The theme of mockery continues: “For the more he is mocked among the unbelieving, the more witness does he give of his own Godhead…. and what men, in their conceit of wisdom, laugh at as merely human, he by his own power demonstrates to be divine, subduing the pretensions of idols by his supposed humiliation—the cross—and those who mock and disbelieve invisibly winning over to recognize his divinity and power” (§1).

Clearly there is some bitterness at work here—yet it is a significantly displaced bitterness. As recently as 311, Alexandria had suffered deeply from the final persecution of Diocletian, losing their bishop, and it is difficult for me to believe that, for example, pagan priests and educated philosophers were playing a significant role in the killing. Another displacement occurs when Athanasius confronts the question of why Christ’s method of death had to be something like crucifixion rather than a quiet death in his sleep. The answer is first of all that his death must be public, which I take to be an encouraging step toward acknowledging the political nature of the cross. Yet here again a displacement occurs, as Athanasius refers to the story from the gospels about the Pharisees paying hush money to the guards of Jesus’s tomb (§23). This displacement onto the Jews continues as Athanasius moves on to another reason—namely, that it was more appropriate for Jesus to let his enemies pick the method of death, lest he appear weak; his enemies are sure to pick the most fearsome method. Though he is not as explicit in naming the Jews as Christ’s enemies here, the invocation of John the Baptist and Isaiah’s deaths point in that direction, and the quotation of the verse “Cursed is he that hangs on a tree” almost makes crucifixion out to be a distinctively Jewish punishment.

Athanasius then turns to more purely symbolic interpretations such as the idea that Christ’s outstretched hands show that he was sent to unite Jews and Gentiles and finding scriptural reasons for his elevation into the air. Everything comes in for discussion except the fact that Christ was executed by the Roman Empire—an empire that, by the way, did not abolish the practice of crucifixion until 337, meaning that the empire was still claiming the right to crucify people when it officially began its policy of tolerance in 313 and still claiming the right to crucify people when it was overseeing the formulation of official orthodoxy at Nicea in 325.

The outrage of the cross, made all the more real in Athanasius’s own experience of persecution a few years prior, is obviously at work here, yet the strategic habits, inculcated by generations of apologists, of displacing blame onto the Jews and settling for pagan religious culture rather than pagan political culture as a target of critique have begun to have especially perverse effects. Now the favor of the empire that killed Jesus becomes the ultimate revenge against all of Christianity’s imagined enemies, and the triumph of Christianity is interpreted through the lens of military conquest, with the enemy’s gods replaced by our triumphant god. The notion of displacing imperial power as the arbiter of value had never been a major theme of Christian discourse—whether out of apocalyptic hope or worldly prudence—and now the very idea would be incomprehensible, because the empire had finally “come around.”

Things of course were never that simple, and Athanasius himself would suffer repeated exiles as the empire never seemed to be able to decide which faction of the church it would support. The next generation of champions of orthodoxy, led by the Cappadocians, of whom Gregory of Nyssa was the youngest and perhaps the most brilliant, would also face significant difficulties, including the brief and tumultuous reign of Julian the Apostate, who attempted to revive the ancient Roman religion. Yet never again in the patristic era would widespread persecution be such a vivid memory—and perhaps as a result, the cross as a political reality becomes ever more incomprehensible. Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism is a particularly honest and self-conscious example of this phenomenon. Written to help catechists who were apparently dealing with many interested inquirers of a pagan background, Gregory attempts to reason his way as far “into” Christian teaching as possible based solely on shared philosophical assumptions. When he gets to the incarnation and especially the death of Christ, however, he admits that it is difficult to understand and believe—in fact, he makes two attempts to reason it out and comes up against the same stumbling block twice.

Gregory throws out some symbolic interpretations of the kind we’ve already seen, yet it’s hard to believe his audience is satisfied—Christ’s death on the cross remains incomprehensible, and perhaps we are here witnessing the beginning of the transition where crucifixion as a tool of imperial domination fades as a historical memory and it comes to seem as though it is somehow uniquely the fate of Christ alone.

What’s more, the displacement of the cross away from politics seems to be absolute in Gregory, who has neglected to identify human actors (even incorrect targets such as Jews or “idolaters” qua idolaters) and displaced the blame entirely onto the devil. Yet it is precisely at this point of the greatest spiritualization that the repressed political element resurfaces most clearly, if the devil is “translated” back into the political ruler he had tended to symbolize in earlier Christian writings, particularly apocalyptic writings.. The narrative of redemption becomes one of fooling the devil, who unjustly holds humanity captive, into laying claim to a being—Christ, as fully man and fully God—over whom he has no possible claim. In the process, the devil not only sees his claim completely undermined from within, but is himself redeemed: “He freed man from evil, and healed the very author of evil himself” (§26).

I wouldn’t claim that the political parallel is conscious on Gregory’s part, but this seems to be a very useful political allegory—as Darby Ray, Denny Weaver, and others have already shown and as I try to show in a different way in my dissertation—and it is perhaps a political allegory that is only made possible by the very fact that the empire had embraced Christianity, which was the Christian movement’s first example of the possibility of politics moving in a redemptive direction.

Yet there are dangers in going soft on the devil, dangers that can only be avoided if the trauma of the cross is maintained as trauma. I should say that I can’t judge the political choices and strategies of the early church because I wasn’t there—and certainly in our current imperial context, I have no clear idea of what to do to open up more liberative or transformative policies. The “hail Mary” pass of glorifying the cross did at least achieve the goal of preserving the Christian movement, allowing us today to discern the traces of a more revolutionary potential in founding documents that likely would not have come down to us in any other way.

In many conditions of trauma, a survival strategy of this kind may well be enough, or at least it serves as a kind of baseline. The “blowback” of this particular strategy, however, both in terms of cozying up to imperial power and eventually identifying with it and in terms of the scapegoating of the Jews and the denigration of other religious traditions, naturally leads one to seek out other possibilities.

I think the key to finding a new strategy has to be to deal honestly with trauma as trauma; here I’d particularly like to focus on anger. In Athanasius, we saw that the significant and justified anger of one whose community was ravaged by persecution was displaced primarily onto idolaters, but also onto Jews. The natural instinct of those raised in both liberal and Christian settings may be to claim that the problem is the anger as such, that one needs to “forgive and forget” in order to move forward, especially when the enemy has made significant gestures of reconciliation. Yet I believe that one of the greatest lessons feminist theology has to offer to Christians is not only that there is a place for justified anger, but that anger has its own time and rhythm and must be honestly dwelled in and lived through. I mean “must” in the strongest sense, not just in the sense of moral obligation, but in the term of inner psychological necessity—anger that is “skipped over” or rushed through will inevitably come out in other ways.

We would do well to wonder what might have happened if a critical mass of the early Christian movement had dwelled in the anger—including the grief, feelings of powerlessness, and even fury that accompany it—that naturally followed in the wake of the death of their leaders and peers at the hands of Roman power, begun with the crucifixion of Christ and renewed with each round of persecution. The more important task, however, for those who see in Christianity a radical potential for transformation, may be for us to learn to dwell in our own anger, to identify accurately its sources and to sublimate its energy not into self-deprecation or scapegoating of others or lust to become dominators ourselves, but into a clear-eyed ruthlessness that knows the enemy well enough to undermine the his power from within and thereby open up the possibility of his redemption.

3 thoughts on “AAR Paper: “Patristic Perspectives on the Cross: A Reinterpretation”

  1. I’ve been informed by Horsley’s stuff, particularly his two big edited volumes on Paul, but I didn’t use him explicitly since I was doing patristic/medieval rather than New Testament.

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